Calcified skeletons are produced within complex assemblages of proteins and polysaccharides whose roles in mineralization are not well understood. Here we quantify the kinetics of calcite nucleation onto a suite of high-purity polysaccharide (PS) substrates under controlled conditions. The energy barriers to nucleation are PS-specific by a systematic relationship to PS charge density and substrate structure that is rooted in minimization of the competing substrate-crystal and substrate-liquid interfacial energies. Chitosan presents a low-energy barrier to nucleation because its near-neutral charge favors formation of a substrate-crystal interface, thus reducing substrate interactions with water. Progressively higher barriers are measured for negatively charged alginates and heparin that favor contact with the solution over the formation of new substrate-crystal interfaces. The findings support a directing role for PS in biomineral formation and demonstrate that substrate-crystal interactions are one end-member in a larger continuum of competing forces that regulate heterogeneous crystal nucleation.
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