Nature communications

Chirality-selected phase behaviour in ionic polypeptide complexes.

PMID 25586861


Polyelectrolyte complexes present new opportunities for self-assembled soft matter. Factors determining whether the phase of the complex is solid or liquid remain unclear. Ionic polypeptides enable examination of the effects of stereochemistry on complex formation. Here we demonstrate that chirality determines the state of polyelectrolyte complexes, formed from mixing dilute solutions of oppositely charged polypeptides, via a combination of electrostatic and hydrogen-bonding interactions. Fluid complexes occur when at least one of the polypeptides in the mixture is racemic, which disrupts backbone hydrogen-bonding networks. Pairs of purely chiral polypeptides, of any sense, form compact, fibrillar solids with a β-sheet structure. Analogous behaviour occurs in micelles formed from polypeptide block copolymers with polyethylene oxide, where assembly into aggregates with either solid or fluid cores, and eventually into ordered phases at high concentrations, is possible. Chirality is an exploitable tool for manipulating material properties in polyelectrolyte complexation.