Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol.139, No.47, 17140-17151, 2017
Directly Observing Micelle Fusion and Growth in Solution by Liquid-Cell Transmission Electron Microscopy
Amphiphilic small molecules and polymers form commonplace nanoscale macromolecular compartments and bilayers, and as such are truly essential components in all cells and in many cellular processes. The nature of these architectures, including their formation, phase changes, and stimuli-response behaviors, is necessary for the most basic functions of life, and over the past half-century, these natural micellar structures have inspired a vast diversity of industrial products, from biomedicines to detergents, lubricants, and coatings. The importance of these materials and their ubiquity have made them the subject of intense investigation regarding their nanoscale dynamics with increasing interest in obtaining sufficient temporal and spatial resolution to directly observe nanoscale processes. However, the vast majority of experimental methods involve either bulk-averaging techniques including light, neutron, and X-ray scattering, or are static in nature including even the most advanced cryogenic transmission electron microscopy techniques. Here, we employ in situ liquid-cell transmission electron microscopy (LCTEM) to directly observe the evolution of individual amphiphilic block copolymer micellar nanoparticles in solution, in real time with nanometer spatial resolution. These observations, made on a proof-of-concept bioconjugate polymer amphiphile, revealed growth and evolution occurring by unimer addition processes and by particle-particle collision-and-fusion events. The experimental approach, combining direct LCTEM observation, quantitative analysis of LCTEM data, and correlated in silico simulations, provides a unique view of solvated soft matter nanoassemblies as they morph and evolve in time and space, enabling us to capture these phenomena in solution.