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Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, Dynamic Light Scattering, Water Structure, Hydrogen Bonds, Phase Separation

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Liquid-liquid phase separation underlies the formation of membrane-less organelles inside living cells. The mechanism of this process can be examined using simple aqueous mixtures of two or more solutes, which are able to phase separate at specific concentration thresholds. This work presents the first experimental evidence that mesoscopic changes precede visually detected macroscopic phase separation in aqueous mixtures of two polymers and a single polymer and salt. Dynamic light scattering (DLS) analysis indicates the formation of mesoscopic polymer agglomerates in these systems. These agglomerates increase in size with increasing polymer concentrations prior to visual phase separation. Such mesoscopic changes are paralleled by changes in water structure as evidenced by Attenuated Total Reflection—Fourier Transform Infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopic analysis of OH-stretch bands. Through OH-stretch band analysis, we obtain quantitative estimates of the relative fractions of four subpopulations of water structures coexisting in aqueous solutions. These estimates indicate that abrupt changes in hydrogen bond arrangement take place at concentrations below the threshold of macroscopic phase separation. We used these experimental observations to develop a model of phase separation in aqueous media.

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International Journal of Molecular Sciences, v. 23, issue 22, art. 14366