Science Advances | 2021
Looping-in complexation and ion partitioning in nonstoichiometric polyelectrolyte mixtures
The principles governing ion and macroion partitioning in nonstoichiometric coacervates are elucidated. A wide variety of intracellular membraneless compartments are formed via liquid-liquid phase separation of charged proteins and nucleic acids. Understanding the stability of these compartments, while accounting for the compositional heterogeneity intrinsic to cellular environments, poses a daunting challenge. We combined experimental and theoretical efforts to study the effects of nonstoichiometric mixing on coacervation behavior and accurately measured the concentrations of polyelectrolytes and small ions in the coacervate and supernatant phases. For synthetic polyacrylamides and polypeptides/DNA, with unequal mixing stoichiometry, we report a general “looping-in” phenomenon found around physiological salt concentrations, where the polymer concentrations in the coacervate initially increase with salt addition before subsequently decreasing. This looping-in behavior is captured by a molecular model that considers reversible ion binding and electrostatic interactions. Further analysis in the low-salt regime shows that the looping-in phenomenon originates from the translational entropy of counterions that are needed to neutralize nonstoichiometric coacervates.