Effects of urea on the microstructure and phase behavior of aqueous solutions of poly(oxyethylene) surfactants

Carolina L. Bianco, Craig S. Schneider, Mariagabriella Santonicola, Abraham M. Lenhoff, Eric W. Kaler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Membrane proteins are made soluble in aqueous buffers by the addition of various surfactants (detergents) to form so-called protein-detergent complexes (PDCs). Properties of membrane proteins are commonly assessed by unfolding the protein in the presence of surfactant in a buffer solution by adding urea. The stability of the protein under these conditions is then monitored by biophysical methods such as fluorescence or circular dichroism spectroscopy. Often overlooked in these experiments is the effect of urea on the phase behavior and micellar microstructure of the different surfactants used to form the PDCs. Here the effect of urea on five poly(oxyethylene) surfactants-n- octylytetraoxyethylene (C8E4), n-octylpentaoxyethylene (C8E5), n-decylhexaoxyethylene (C10E 6), n-dodecylhexaoxyethylene (C12E6), and n-dodecyloctaoxyethylene (C12E8)-is explored. The presence of urea increases the critical micelle concentration (cmc) of all surfactants studied, indicating that the concentration of both the surfactant and urea should be considered in membrane protein folding studies. The cloud point temperature of all surfactants studied also increases with increasing urea concentration. Small-angle neutron scattering shows a urea-induced transition from an elongated to a globular shape for micelles of C8E4 and C12E6. In contrast, C8E5 and C12E8 form more globular micelles at room temperature and the micelles remain globular as the urea concentration is increased. The effects of increasing urea concentration on micelle structure are analogous to those of decreasing the temperature. The large changes in micelle structure observed here could also affect membrane protein unfolding studies by changing the structure of the PDC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-96
Number of pages12
JournalIndustrial and Engineering Chemistry Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 5 2011


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