Model foldable polymers with sequences of rigid hydrophobic chromophores and flexible hydrophilic tetra(ethylene glycol) were synthesized and used as a paradigm for studying molecular-folding and self-assembly phenomena. Our results demonstrate that intramolecular association or folding prevails over intermolecular interaction or self-assembling in the concentration region from 1 μM to 0.1 M. Importantly, folded polymeric nanostructures have absorption and fluorescence properties that are distinct from those of unfolded polymers or free monomers. We hypothesize that the origins of folding and self-assembly come from interactions between molecular units, and that the key parameter that regulates the on-and-off of such interactions is the distance R separating the two molecular units. Each molecular unit produces a characteristic force field, and when another molecular unit enters this field, the probability that the two units will interact increases significantly. A preliminary estimate of the radius of such a force field for the perylene tetracarboxylic diimide chromophore is about 90–120 Å. As a result, phenomena associated with folding or self-assembly of molecular species are observed when these conditions are met in solution.
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