Hierarchical assembly of building blocks via competing, orthogonal interactions is a hallmark of many of nature's composite materials that do not require highly specific ligand-receptor interactions. To mimic this assembly mechanism requires the development of building blocks capable of tunable interactions. In the present work, we explored the interplay between repulsive (steric and electrostatic) and attractive hydrophobic forces. The designed building blocks allow hydrophobic forces to effectively act at controlled, large distances, to create and tune the assembly of membrane-based building blocks under dilute conditions, and to affect their interactions with cellular membranes via physical cross-bridges. Specifically, we employed double-end-anchored poly(ethylene glycol)s (DEA-PEGs)-hydrophilic PEG tethers with hydrophobic tails on both ends. Using differential-interference-contrast optical microscopy, synchrotron small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), and cryogenic electron microscopy, we investigated the ability of DEA-PEGs to mediate assembly in the dilute regime on multiple length scales and on practical time scales. The PEG length, anchor hydrophobicity, and molar fraction of DEA-PEG molecules within a membrane strongly affect the assembly properties. Additional tuning of the intermembrane interactions can be achieved by adding repulsive interactions via PEG-lipids (steric) or cationic lipids to the DEA-PEG-mediated attractions. While the optical and electron microscopy imaging methods provided qualitative evidence of the ability of DEA-PEGs to assemble liposomes, the SAXS measurements and quantitative line-shape analysis in dilute preparations demonstrated that the ensemble average of loosely organized liposomal assemblies maintains DEA-PEG concentration-dependent tethering on defined nanometer length scales. For cationic liposome-DNA nanoparticles (CL-DNA NPs), aggregation induced by DEA-PEGs decreased internalization of NPs by cells, but tuning the DEA-PEG-induced attractions by adding repulsive steric interactions via PEG-lipids limited aggregation and increased NP uptake. Furthermore, confocal microscopy imaging together with colocalization studies with Rab11 and LysoTracker as markers of intracellular pathways showed that modifying CL-DNA NPs with DEA-PEGs alters their interactions with the plasma and endosomal membranes.
Keywords: PEG-lipid; competing interactions; hydrophobic-mediated tethering; lipid bilayer; lipid membrane; liposomes; self-assembly; tunable assembly.