Imaging Unstained Synthetic Polymer Crystals and Defects on Atomic Length Scales Using Cryogenic Electron Microscopy

Properties of soft crystalline materials such as synthetic polymers are governed by locations of constituent atoms. Determining atomic-scale structures in these materials is difficult because they degrade rapidly when studied by electron microscopy, and techniques such as X-ray scattering average over volumes much larger than coherent blocks of the unit cells. We obtained cryo-electron microscopy images of self-assembled nanosheets of a peptoid polymer, made by solid-phase synthesis, in which we see a variety of crystalline motifs. A combination of crystallographic and single-particle methods, developed for cryo-electron microscopy of biological macromolecules, was used to obtain high-resolution images of the crystals. Individual crystals contain grains that are mirror images of each other with concomitant grain boundaries. We have used molecular dynamic simulations to build an atomic model of the crystal structure to facilitate the interpretation of electron micrographs. Direct visualization of crystalline grains and grain boundaries on atomic length scales represents a new level of information for the polymer field.