Order–Order Morphological Transitions for Dual Stimulus Responsive Diblock Copolymer Vesicles

A series of non-ionic poly­(glycerol mono­methacrylate)–poly­(2-hydroxy­propyl methacrylate) (PGMA–PHPMA) diblock copolymer vesicles has been prepared by reversible addition–fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) aqueous dispersion polymerization of HPMA at 70 °C at low pH using a carboxylic acid-based chain transfer agent. The degree of polymerization (DP) of the PGMA block was fixed at 43, and the DP of the PHPMA block was systematically varied from 175 to 250 in order to target vesicle phase space. Based on our recent work describing the analogous PGMA–PHPMA diblock copolymer worms [Lovett, J. R.; Angew. Chem. 2015, 54, 1279−1283], such diblock copolymer vesicles were expected to undergo an order–order morphological transition via ionization of the carboxylic acid end-group on switching the solution pH. Indeed, irreversible vesicle-to-sphere and vesicle-to-worm transitions were observed for PHPMA DPs of 175 and 200, respectively, as judged by turbidimetry, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and dynamic light scattering (DLS) studies. However, such morphological transitions are surprisingly slow, with relatively long time scales (hours) being required at 20 °C. Moreover, no order–order morphological transitions were observed for vesicles comprising longer membrane-forming blocks (e.g., PGMA43–PHPMA225–250) on raising the pH from pH 3.5 to pH 6.0. However, in such cases the application of a dual stimulus comprising the same pH switch immediately followed by cooling from 20 to 5 °C, induces an irreversible vesicle-to-sphere transition. Finally, TEM and DLS studies conducted in the presence of 100 mM KCl demonstrated that the pH-responsive behavior arising from end-group ionization could be suppressed in the presence of added electrolyte. This is because charge screening suppresses the subtle change in the packing parameter required to drive the morphological transition.