Probing the Biomimetic Ice Nucleation Inhibition Activity of Poly(vinyl alcohol) and Comparison to Synthetic and Biological Polymers

Nature has evolved many elegant solutions to enable life to flourish at low temperatures by either allowing (tolerance) or preventing (avoidance) ice formation. These processes are typically controlled by ice nucleating proteins or antifreeze proteins, which act to either promote nucleation, prevent nucleation or inhibit ice growth depending on the specific need, respectively. These proteins can be expensive and their mechanisms of action are not understood, limiting their translation, especially into biomedical cryopreservation applications. Here well-defined poly­(vinyl alcohol), synthesized by RAFT/MADIX polymerization, is investigated for its ice nucleation inhibition (INI) activity, in contrast to its established ice growth inhibitory properties and compared to other synthetic polymers. It is shown that ice nucleation inhibition activity of PVA has a strong molecular weight dependence; polymers with a degree of polymerization below 200 being an effective inhibitor at just 1 mg.mL–1. Other synthetic and natural polymers, both with and without hydroxyl-functional side chains, showed negligible activity, highlighting the unique ice/water interacting properties of PVA. These findings both aid our understanding of ice nucleation but demonstrate the potential of engineering synthetic polymers as new biomimetics to control ice formation/growth processes