Cosolvent Effects on Polymer Hydration Drive Hydrophobic Collapse

Research paper by Divya Nayar, Nico F. A. van der Vegt

Indexed on: 28 Feb '18Published on: 14 Feb '18Published in: Journal of Physical Chemistry B


Water-mediated hydrophobic interactions play an important role in self-assembly processes, aqueous polymer solubility, and protein folding, to name a few. Cosolvents affect these interactions; however, the implications for hydrophobic polymer collapse and protein folding equilibria are not well-understood. This study examines cosolvent effects on the hydrophobic collapse equilibrium of a generic 32-mer hydrophobic polymer in urea, trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), and acetone aqueous solutions using molecular dynamics simulations. Our results unveil a remarkable cosolvent-concentration-dependent behavior. Urea, TMAO, and acetone all shift the equilibrium toward collapsed structures below 2 M cosolvent concentration and, in turn, to unfolded structures at higher cosolvent concentrations, irrespective of the differences in cosolvent chemistry and the nature of cosolvent–water interactions. We find that weakly attractive polymer–water van der Waals interactions oppose polymer collapse in pure water, corroborating related observations reviewed by Ben-Amotz (Annu. Rev. Phys. Chem. 2016, 67, 617–638). The cosolvents studied in the present work adsorb at the polymer/water interface and expel water molecules into the bulk, thereby effectively removing the dehydration energy penalty that opposes polymer collapse in pure water. At low cosolvent concentrations, this leads to cosolvent-induced stabilization of collapsed polymer structures. Only at sufficiently high cosolvent concentrations, polymer–cosolvent interactions favor polymer unfolding.

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