A family of amphiphilic, heterograft copolymers containing hydrophilic, hydrophobic, and supramolecular units based on Jeffamine M-1000, dodecylamine, and benzene-1,3,5-tricarboxamide (BTA) motifs, respectively, was prepared via a postfunctionalization approach. The folding of the copolymers in water into nanometer-sized particles was analyzed by a combination of dynamic and static light scattering, circular dichroism spectroscopy, and small-angle neutron scattering. The sample preparation protocol was crucial for obtaining reproducible and consistent results, showing that only full control over the structure and pathway complexity will afford the desired folded structure, a phenomenon similar to protein folding. The results revealed that relatively small changes in the polymer’s graft composition strongly affected the intra- versus intermolecular assembly processes. Depending on the amount of the hydrophobic grafts based on either dodecyl or BTA groups, pronounced behavioral differences were observed for copolymers that comprise similar degrees of hydrophobic content. A high number of BTA grafts (>10%) resulted in the formation of multichain aggregates comprising around six polymer chains. In contrast, for copolymers comprising up to 10% BTA grafts the folding results in nanoparticles that adopt open, sparse conformations and comprise one to two polymer chains. Interestingly, predominantly single-chain polymeric nanoparticles were formed when the copolymer comprised only Jeffamine or Jeffamine and dodecyl grafts. In addition, replacing part of the BTA grafts by hydrophobic dodecyl grafts while keeping the hydrophobic content constant promoted single-chain folding and resulted in the formation of a compact, globular nanoparticle with a more structured interior. Thus, the intra- and intermolecular self-assembly pathways can be directed by carefully tuning the polymer’s hydrophilic–hydrophobic balance in combination with the number of supramolecular grafts.
Full Access Link: Macromolecules