Complex pH-Dependent Interactions between Weak Polyelectrolyte Block Copolymer Micelles and Molecular Fluorophores

Stacy M. Copp, Ryan L. Hamblin, Kirstie Swingle, Durgesh Rai, Volker S. Urban, Sergei A. Ivanov, Gabriel A. Montaño

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Amphiphilic block copolymers with weak polyelectrolyte blocks can assemble stimulus-responsive nanostructures and interfaces. Applications of these materials in drug delivery, biomimetics, and sensing largely rely on the well-understood swelling of polyelectrolyte chains upon deprotonation, often induced by changes in pH or ionic strength. This deprotonation can also tune interfacial interactions between the polyelectrolyte blocks and surrounding solution, an effect which is less studied than morphological swelling of polyelectrolytes but can be just as critical for intended function. Here, we investigate whether the pH-driven morphological response of polyelectrolyte-bearing nanostructures also affects the interactions of these nanostructures with molecules in solution, using micelles of a short-chain polybutadiene-block-poly(acrylic acid) (pBd-pAA) as a model system. We introduce a Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) approach to probe interactions between micelles and fluorescent molecular solutes as a function of solution pH. As expected, the pAA corona of these pBd-pAA micelles increases in thickness monotonically as a function of pH. However, FRET efficiency, which provides a metric of the spatial proximity of fluorescently labeled micelles and freely diffusing fluorophores, exhibits complex nonmonotonic behavior as a function of pH, indicating that the average separation of micelles and acceptor fluorophores is not strictly correlated with micelle swelling. Dialysis experiments quantify the affinity of fluorophores for micelles as a function of pH, confirming that changes in FRET are driven almost entirely by the pH-dependent affinity of the pAA block for the investigated molecular fluorophores, not simply by a shape change of the pAA corona. This study provides key insights into the interfacial interactions between weak-polyelectrolyte-bearing nanostructures and molecular solutes, of importance for the development of their stimulus-responsive applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2038-2045
Number of pages8
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 15 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Materials Science
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Surfaces and Interfaces
  • Spectroscopy
  • Electrochemistry


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