Sequence-Controlled Polymers

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Science  09 Aug 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6146, 1238149
DOI: 10.1126/science.1238149

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Structured Abstract


During the last few decades, progress has been made in manipulating the architecture of synthetic polymer materials. However, the primary structure—that is, the sequential arrangement of monomer units in a polymer chain—is generally poorly controlled in synthetic macromolecules. Common synthetic polymers are usually homopolymers, made of the same monomer unit, or copolymers with simple chain microstructures, such as random or block copolymers. These polymers are used in many areas but do not have the structural and functional complexity of sequence-defined biopolymers, such as nucleic acids or proteins. Indeed, monomer sequence regulation plays a key role in biology and is a prerequisite for crucial features of life, such as heredity, self-replication, complex self-assembly, and molecular recognition. In this context, developing synthetic polymers containing controlled monomer sequences is an important area for research.

Embedded Image

Precise molecular encoding of synthetic polymer chains. In most synthetic copolymers, monomer units (represented here as colored square boxes A, B, C, and D) are distributed randomly along the polymer chains (left). In sequence-controlled polymers, they are arranged in a specific order in all of the chains (right). Monomer sequence regularity strongly influences the molecular, supramolecular, andmacroscopic properties of polymer materials.


Various synthetic methods for controlling monomer sequences in polymers have been identified, and two major trends in the field of sequence-controlled polymers have emerged. Some approaches use biological concepts that have been optimized by nature for sequence regulation. For instance, DNA templates, enzymes, or even living organisms can be used to prepare sequence-defined polymers. These natural mechanisms can be adapted to tolerate nonnatural monomers. The other trend is the preparation of sequence-controlled polymers by synthetic chemistry. In the most popular approach, monomer units are attached one by one to a support, which is an efficient method but demanding in practice. Recently, some strategies have been proposed for controlling sequences in chain-growth and step-growth polymerizations. These mechanisms usually allow fast and large-scale synthesis of polymers. Specific kinetics and particular catalytic or template conditions allow sequence regulation in these processes.


The possibility of controlling monomer sequences in synthetic macromolecules has many scientific and technological implications. Information can be controlled at the molecular level in synthetic polymer chains. This opens up interesting perspectives for the field of data storage. In addition, having power over monomer sequences could mean structural control of the resulting polymer, as it strongly influences macromolecular folding and self-assembly. For instance, functional synthetic assemblies that mimic the properties of globular proteins, such as enzymes and transporters, can be foreseen. Moreover, monomer sequence control influences some macroscopic properties. For example, bulk properties such as conductivity, rigidity, elasticity, or biodegradability can be finely tuned in sequence-controlled polymers. The behavior of polymers in solution, particularly in water, is also strongly dependent on monomer sequences. Thus, sequence regulation may enable a more effective control of structure-property relations in tomorrow’s polymer materials.

Controlled Polymers

Nature has achieved exquisite sequence control in the synthesis of polymers like DNA. In contrast, synthetic polymers rarely have the same fidelity in their chemistry or uniformity in chain-length distribution, especially when more than one monomer is involved. Lutz et al. (1238149) review the progress that has been made in making sequence-controlled polymers of increasing length and complexity. These developments have come from both advances in synthetic chemistry methods and the exploitation of biological machinery.


Sequence-controlled polymers are macromolecules in which monomer units of different chemical nature are arranged in an ordered fashion. The most prominent examples are biological and have been studied and used primarily by molecular biologists and biochemists. However, recent progress in protein- and DNA-based nanotechnologies has shown the relevance of sequence-controlled polymers to nonbiological applications, including data storage, nanoelectronics, and catalysis. In addition, synthetic polymer chemistry has provided interesting routes for preparing nonnatural sequence-controlled polymers. Although these synthetic macromolecules do not yet compare in functional scope with their natural counterparts, they open up opportunities for controlling the structure, self-assembly, and macroscopic properties of polymer materials.

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