The conformational properties of symmetric flexible diblock polyampholytes are investigated by scaling theory and molecular dynamics simulations. The electrostatically driven coil-globule transition of a symmetric diblock polyampholyte is found to consist of three regimes identified with increasing electrostatic interaction strength. In the first (folding) regime the electrostatic attraction causes the chain to fold through the overlap of the two blocks, while each block is slightly stretched by self-repulsion. The second (weak association or scrambled egg) regime is the classical collapse of the chain into a globule dominated by the fluctuation- induced attractions between oppositely charged sections of the chain. The structure of the formed globule can be represented as a dense packing of the charged chain sections (electrostatic attraction blobs). The third (strong association or ion binding) regime starts with direct binding of oppositely charged monomers (dipole formation), followed by a cascade of multipole formation (quadrupole, hexapole, octupole, etc.), leading to multiplets analogous to those found in ionomers. The existence of the multiplet cascade has also been confirmed in the simulations of solutions of short polymers with only one single charge (either positive or negative) in the middle of each chain. We use scaling theory to estimate the average chain size and the electrostatic correlation length as functions of the chain length, strength of electrostatic interactions, charge fraction, and solvent quality. The theoretically predicted scaling laws of these conformational properties are in very good agreement with our simulation results.
Regimes of conformational transitions of a diblock polyampholyte