Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemical & Biochemical Engineering

First Advisor

Daniel K. Schwartz

Second Advisor

Ted Randolph

Third Advisor

Joel L. Kaar

Fourth Advisor

John F. Carpenter

Fifth Advisor

Stephanie J. Bryant


Non-specific protein adsorption to solid surfaces is pervasive and observed across a broad spectrum of applications including biomaterials, separations, pharmaceuticals, and biosensing. Despite great interest in and considerable literature dedicated to the phenomena, a mechanistic understanding of this complex phenomena is lacking and remains controversial, partially due to the limits of ensemble-averaging techniques used to study it. Single-molecule tracking (SMT) methods allow us to study distinct protein dynamics (e.g. adsorption, desorption, diffusion, and intermolecular associations) on a molecule-by-molecule basis revealing the protein population and spatial heterogeneity inherent in protein interfacial behavior. By employing single-molecule total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (SM-TIRFM), we have developed SMT methods to directly observe protein interfacial dynamics at the solid-liquid interface to build a better mechanistic understanding of protein adsorption. First, we examined the effects of surface chemistry (e.g. hydrophobicity, hydrogen-bonding capacity), temperature, and electrostatics on isolated protein desorption and interfacial diffusion for fibrinogen (Fg) and bovine serum albumin (BSA). Next, we directly and indirectly probed the effects of protein-protein interactions on interfacial desorption, diffusion, aggregation, and surface spatial heterogeneity on model and polymeric thin films.

These studies provided many useful insights into interfacial protein dynamics including the following observations. First, protein adsorption was reversible, with the majority of proteins desorbing from all surface chemistries within seconds. Isolated protein-surface interactions were relatively weak on both hydrophobic and hydrophilic surfaces (apparent desorption activation energies of only a few kBT). However, proteins could dynamically and reversibly associate at the interface, and these interfacial associations led to proteins remaining on the surface for longer time intervals. Surface chemistry and surface spatial heterogeneity (i.e. surface sites with different binding strengths) were shown to influence adsorption, desorption, and interfacial protein-protein associations. For example, faster protein diffusion on hydrophobic surfaces increased protein-protein associations and, at higher protein surface coverage, led to proteins remaining on hydrophobic surfaces longer than on hydrophilic surfaces. Ultimately these studies suggested that surface properties (chemistry, heterogeneity) influence not only protein-surface interactions but also interfacial mobility and protein-protein associations, implying that surfaces that better control protein adsorption can be designed by accounting for these processes.