Understanding the protonation behavior of linear polyethylenimine in solutions through Monte Carlo simulations


The success of polyethyleneimine (PEI) as a nonviral-based gene delivery vector has been attributed to its proton buffering capacity. Despite the great interest in PEI for its use in nonviral-based gene delivery, the protonation behavior of PEI in solution is not well understood. Earlier experimental studies have reported inconsistent values of the protonation state of PEI. In this work, we report our investigation of the protonation behavior of a realistic linear PEI (lPEI) with computational approaches. Reported experimental pK a values of several diamine compounds are first examined. A screened Coulombic interaction with a distance dependence dielectric is shown to reproduce the shifted pKa values of the model diamine compounds. Then atomistic molecular dynamic simulations of lPEI chain with 20 repeating units are performed and the results are used to provide parameters for a coarse-grained polyamine model. The screened Coulombic interaction is then incorporated in the coarse-grained lPEI chain and computational titrations are performed. The obtained computational titration curves of lPEI in solutions were found to be in best agreement with experimental results by Smits et al., but the computational titration curves have too strong of a dependence on salt concentration compared to the experimental results by Smits et al. Disregarding the discrepancy in the salt dependence, our computational titrations reveal that approximately 55% of the lPEI amine groups are protonated under physiological conditions in solution with a nearly alternating arrangement of protonated and nonprotonated amines. Titrations of lPEI in the presence of a polyanion are also performed to determine how the charge state of lPEI could be affected by complexation with DNA in gene therapy preparations. While the presence of the polyanion increases the degree of protonation of the PEI, many of PEI amines remain unprotonated under physiological conditions, providing evidence that PEI complexed with DNA could still have proton buffering capacity. Potential sources of error that have resulted in the inconsistency of previously reported protonation states of PEI were also discussed. © 2010 American Chemical Society.

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