How interfaces affect hydrophobically driven polymer folding

J Phys Chem B. 2009 Apr 2;113(13):4093-101. doi: 10.1021/jp806528m.


Studies of folding-unfolding of hydrophobic polymers in water provide an excellent starting point to probe manybody hydrophobic interactions in the context of realistic self-assembly processes. Such studies in bulk water have highlighted the similarities between thermodynamics of polymer collapse and of protein folding, and emphasized the role of hydration-water structure, density, and fluctuations-in the folding kinetics. Hydrophobic polymers are interfacially active-that is, they prefer locations at aqueous interfaces relative to bulk water-consistent with their low solubility. How does the presence of a hydrophobic solid surface or an essentially hydrophobic vapor-water interface affect the structural, thermodynamic, and kinetic aspects of polymer folding? Using extensive molecular dynamics simulations, we show that the large hydrophobic driving force for polymer collapse in bulk water is reduced at a solid alkane-water interface and further reduced at a vapor-water interface. As a result, at the solid-water interface, folded structures are marginally stable, whereas the vapor-liquid interface unfolds polymers completely. Structural sampling is also significantly affected by the interface. For example, at the solid-water interface, polymer conformations are quasi-2- dimensional, with folded states being pancake-like structures. At the vapor-water interface, the hydrophobic polymer is significantly excluded from the water phase and freely samples a broad range of compact to extended structures. Interestingly, although the driving force for folding is considerably lower, kinetics of folding are faster at both interfaces, highlighting the role of enhanced water fluctuations and dynamics at a hydrophobic interface.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions*
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Conformation*
  • Polymers / chemistry*
  • Temperature
  • Thermodynamics
  • Water / chemistry


  • Polymers
  • Water