Regular Article - Soft Matter
Fluctuations, structure, and size inside coacervates
Department of Polymer Science and Engineering, University of Massachusetts, 01003, Amherst, MA, USA
Accepted: 18 August 2023
Published online: 8 September 2023
Aqueous solutions of oppositely charged macromolecules exhibit the ubiquitous phenomenon of coacervation. This subject is of considerable current interest due to numerous biotechnological applications of coacervates and the general premise of biomolecular condensates. Towards a theoretical foundation of structural features of coacervates, we present a field-theoretic treatment of coacervates formed by uniformly charged flexible polycations and polyanions in an electrolyte solution. We delineate different regimes of polymer concentration fluctuations and structural features of coacervates based on the concentrations of polycation and polyanion, salt concentration, and experimentally observable length scales. We present closed-form formulas for correlation length of polymer concentration fluctuations, scattering structure factor, and radius of gyration of a labelled polyelectrolyte chain inside a concentrated coacervate. Using random phase approximation suitable for concentrated polymer systems, we show that the inter-monomer electrostatic interaction is screened by interpenetration of all charged polymer chains and that the screening length depends on the individual concentrations of the polycation and the polyanion, as well as the salt concentration. Our calculations show that the scattering intensity decreases monotonically with scattering wave vector at higher salt concentrations, while it exhibits a peak at intermediate scattering wave vector at lower salt concentrations. Furthermore, we predict that the dependence of the radius of gyration of a labelled chain on its degree of polymerization generally obeys the Gaussian chain statistics. However, the chain is modestly swollen, the extent of which depending on polyelectrolyte composition, salt concentration, and the electrostatic features of the polycation and polyanion such as the degree of ionization.
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