Complex coacervation is a widely utilized technique for effecting phase separation, though predictive understanding of molecular-level details remains underdeveloped. Here, we couple coarse-grained Monte Carlo simulations with experimental efforts using a polypeptide-based model system to investigate how a comb-like architecture affects complex coacervation and coacervate stability. Specifically, the phase separation behavior of linear polycation-linear polyanion pairs was compared to that of comb polycation-linear polyanion and comb polycation-comb polyanion pairs. The comb architecture was found to mitigate cooperative interactions between oppositely charged polymers, as no discernible phase separation was observed for comb-comb pairs and complex coacervation of linear-linear pairs yielded stable coacervates at higher salt concentration than linear-comb pairs. This behavior was attributed to differences in counterion release by linear vs. comb polymers during polyeletrolyte complexation. Additionally, the comb polycation formed coacervates with both stereoregular poly(l-glutamate) and racemic poly(d,l-glutamate), whereas the linear polycation formed coacervates only with the racemic polyanion. In contrast, solid precipitates were obtained from mixtures of stereoregular poly(l-lysine) and poly(l-glutamate). Moreover, the formation of coacervates from cationic comb polymers incorporating up to ∼90% pendant zwitterionic groups demonstrated the potential for inclusion of comonomers to modulate the hydrophilicity and/or other properties of a coacervate-forming polymer. These results provide the first detailed investigation into the role of polymer architecture on complex coacervation using a chemically and architecturally well-defined model system, and highlight the need for additional research on this topic.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
- Organic Chemistry