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Counterion Exchange in Peptide-Complexed Core–Shell Microgels

Liang, Jing, Xiao, Xixi, Chou, Tseng-Ming, Libera, Matthew
Langmuir 2019 v.35 no.29 pp. 9521-9528
X-radiation, antimicrobial peptides, buffers, detection limit, electrolytes, electron microscopy, electrostatic interactions, microgels, polyacrylic acid, sodium
The complexation of polyvalent macroions with oppositely charged polyelectrolyte microgels can lead to core–shell structures. The shell is believed to be highly deswollen with a high concentration of counter-macroions. The core is believed to be relatively free of macroions but under a uniform compressive stress due to the deswollen shell. We use cryo-scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with X-ray microanalysis to confirm this understanding. We study poly(acrylic acid) (PAA) microgels which form a core–shell structure when complexed with a small cationic antimicrobial peptide (L5). We follow the spatial distribution of polymer, water, Na counterions, and peptide based on the characteristic X-ray intensities of C, O, Na, and N, respectively. Frozen-hydrated microgel suspensions include buffers of known composition from which calibration curves can be generated and used to quantify both the microgel water and sodium concentrations, the latter with a minimum quantifiable concentration less than 0.048 M. We find that as-synthesized PAA microgels are enriched in Na relative to the surrounding buffer as anticipated from established ideas of counterion shielding of electrostatic charge. The shell in L5-complexed microgels is depleted in Na and enriched in peptide and contains relatively little water. Our measurements furthermore show that shell/core interface is diffuse over a length scale of a few micrometers. Within the limits of detection, the core Na concentration is the same as that in as-synthesized microgels, and the core is free of peptide. The core has a slightly lower water concentration than as-synthesized controls, consistent with the hypothesis that the core is under compression from the shell.