Systems consisting of a polyelectrolyte solution in contact with a cross-linked polyelectrolyte network are ubiquitous (e.g., biofilms, drug-delivering hydrogels, and mammalian extracellular matrices), yet the underlying physics governing these interactions is not well understood. Here, we find that carboxymethyl cellulose, a polyelectrolyte commonly found in processed foods and associated with inflammation and obesity, compresses the colonic mucus hydrogel (a key regulator of host-microbe interactions and a protective barrier) in mice. The extent of this polyelectrolyte-induced compression is enhanced by the degree of polymer negative charge. Through animal experiments and numerical calculations, we find that this phenomenon can be described by a Donnan mechanism. Further, the observed behavior can be quantitatively described by a simple, one-parameter model. This work suggests that polymer charge should be considered when developing food products because of its potential role in modulating the protective properties of colonic mucus.
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