Peptide-microgel interactions in the strong coupling regime.
The interaction between lightly cross-linked poly(acrylic acid) microgels and oppositely charged peptides was investigated as a function of peptide length, charge density, pH, and salt concentration, with emphasis on the strong coupling regime at high charge contrast. By micromanipulator-assisted light microscopy, the equilibrium volume response of single microgel particles upon oligolysine and oligo(lysine/alanine) absorption could be monitored in a controlled fashion. Results show that microgel deswelling, caused by peptide binding and network neutralization, increases with peptide length (3 < 5 < 10) and charge density (30% < 50% < 100%). Furthermore, oligomer-induced microgel deswelling was more pronounced at pH 5 than at pH 8, reflecting the lower network charge density in the former case (pK(a) for the isolated acrylic acid ≈4.7). In order to describe these highly coupled systems, a model was developed, in which counterion/peptide-mediated electrostatic attraction between the network chains is described using an exponential force law, and the network elasticity by the inverse Langevin theory. The model was used to calculate the composition of microgels in contact with reservoir solutions of peptides and simple electrolytes. At high electrostatic coupling, the calculated swelling curves were found to display first-order phase transition behavior. The model was demonstrated to capture pH- and electrolyte-dependent microgel swelling, as well as effects of peptide length and charge density on microgel deswelling. The analysis demonstrated that the peptide charge (length), rather than the peptide charge density, determines microgel deswelling. Furthermore, a transition between continuous and discrete network collapse was identified, consistent with experimental results in the present investigations, as well as with results from the literature on microgel deswelling caused by multivalent cations.