Subtle charge balance controls surface-nucleated self-assembly of designed biopolymers

Charbonneau, C.M.A.; Kleijn, J.M.; Cohen Stuart, M.A.


We report the surface-nucleated self-assembly into fibrils of a biosynthetic amino acid polymer synthesized by the yeast Pichia pastoris. This polymer has a block-like architecture, with a central silk-like block labeled SH, responsible for the self-assembly into fibrils, and two collagen-like random coil end blocks (C) that colloidally stabilize the fibers in aqueous solution. The silk-like block contains histidine residues (pKa ˜ 6) that are positively charged in the low pH region, which hinders self-assembly. In aqueous solution, CSHC self-assembles into fibers above a pH-dependent critical nucleation concentration Ccb. Below Ccb, where no self-assembly occurs in solution, fibril formation can be induced by a negatively charged surface (silica) in the pH range of 3.5–7. The density of the fibers at the surface and their length are controlled by a subtle balance in charge between the protein polymer and the silica surface, which is evidenced from the dependence on pH. With increasing number density of the fibers at the surface, their average length decreases. The results can be explained on the basis of a nucleation-and-growth mechanism: the surface density of fibers depends on the rate of nucleation, while their growth rate is limited by transport of proteins from solution. Screening of the charges on the surface and histidine units by adding NaCl influences the nucleation-and-growth process in a complicated fashion: at low pH, the growth is improved, while at high pH, the nucleation is limited. Under conditions where nucleation in the bulk solution is not possible, growth of the surface-nucleated fibers into the solution—away from the surface—can still occur.