Intramolecularly Cross-Linked Polymers: From Structure to Function with Applications as Artificial Antibodies and Artificial Enzymes

Junfeng Chen, Edzna S. Garcia, Steven C. Zimmerman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


ConspectusCross-linking of polymers significantly alters their physical properties, greatly expanding their everyday utility. Indeed, the polymeric networks resulting from linkages between polymer chains are found in everyday materials from soft contact lenses and automobile tires to enamel coatings and high-performance adhesives. In contrast, intramolecularly cross-linked polymers have received far less attention until recent years, in large part because they are synthetically more challenging to prepare. In this Account, we trace our own efforts to develop the chemistry of intramolecularly cross-linked macromolecules, starting with dendrimers. Dendrimers provided an excellent starting point for investigating intramolecular cross-linking because they are single molecular entities. We showed that the end groups of dendrimers can be extensively cross-linked using the ring-closing metathesis reaction and that the discrete structure of the dendrimer provides unique opportunities for characterizing the number and location of the cross-links as well as some physical properties of the macromolecule such as its size and rigidity. Increasing the number of ring-closing metathesis reactions correlated with a reduction in size and an increase in rigidity. The general strategy applied to dendrimers was extended to star polymers and hyperbranched polyglycerols. Each of these macromolecules has a core or an initiating group from which the branches emanate. Linking the end groups or branches of these polymers presents a unique opportunity to chemically remove the core of the cross-linked macromolecule in a process that is reminiscent of that used to produce covalent molecular imprinted polymers. Recognizing this analogy, we sought a compelling application for cross-linked dendrimers, the first example of unimolecular imprinting, where a single polymer contains a single molecular imprint. The quality of the imprinting was mixed but pointed to an alternative general strategy for molecular imprinting in polymers. The effort also focused attention on synthetic antibodies and the general biomimicry provided by this class of macromolecules. Indeed, cross-linking of polymers either covalently or non-covalently bears a loose resemblance to folding of proteins into defined three-dimensional shapes. The synthesis and study of cross-linked linear polymers, often called single-chain nanoparticles (SCNPs), has emerged as a very active area of research in the past few years. Our experience with the cross-linking of branched polymers combined with an interest in performing organic synthesis within living cells led us to develop copper-containing SCNPs as artificial clickases. These polymeric clickases exhibit all of the hallmarks of enzymatic catalysis. One clickase containing a polyacrylamide backbone performs low-concentration copper-assisted alkyne-azide click reactions at unprecedented rates. Another performs click reactions within living cells. Other organic transformations can be performed intracellularly, and some of the most advanced SCNPs engage in concurrent and tandem catalysis with a naturally occurring biocatalyst. By tracing our own efforts, this Account provides a few entry points into the broader literature and also points to both the remaining challenges and overall promising future envisioned for this unique class of functional macromolecules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1244-1256
Number of pages13
JournalAccounts of chemical research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 16 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)


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