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  1. Phosphates and polyphosphates play ubiquitous roles in biology as integral structural components of cell membranes and bone, or as vehicles of energy storage via adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine. The solution phase space of phosphate species appears more complex than previously known. We present nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and cryogenic transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM) experiments that suggest phosphate species including orthophosphates, pyrophosphates, and adenosine phosphates associate into dynamic assemblies in dilute solutions that are spectroscopically “dark.” Cryo-TEM provides visual evidence of the formation of spherical assemblies tens of nanometers in size, while NMR indicates that a majority population of phosphates remain as unassociated ions in exchange with spectroscopically invisible assemblies. The formation of these assemblies is reversibly and entropically driven by the partial dehydration of phosphate groups, as verified by diffusion-ordered spectroscopy (DOSY), indicating a thermodynamic state of assembly held together by multivalent interactions between the phosphates. Molecular dynamics simulations further corroborate that orthophosphates readily cluster in aqueous solutions. This study presents the surprising discovery that phosphate-containing molecules, ubiquitously present in the biological milieu, can readily form dynamic assemblies under a wide range of commonly used solution conditions, highlighting a hitherto unreported property of phosphate’s native state in biological solutions. 
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  2. Materials that utilize heterogeneous microstructures to control macroscopic mechanical response are ubiquitous in nature. Yet, translating nature's lessons to create synthetic soft solids has remained challenging. This is largely due to the limited synthetic routes available for creating soft composites, particularly with submicron features, as well as uncertainty surrounding the role of such a microstructured secondary phase in determining material behavior. This work leverages recent advances in the development of photocrosslinkable thermogelling nanoemulsions to produce composite hydrogels with a secondary phase assembled at well controlled length scales ranging from tens of nm to tens of μm. Through analysis of the mechanical response of these fluid-filled composite hydrogels, it is found that the size scale of the secondary phase has a profound impact on the strength when at or above the elastofracture length. Moreover, this work shows that mechanical integrity of fluid–filled soft solids can be sensitive to the size scale of the secondary phase. 
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  3. Modulating the interaction potential between colloids suspended in a fluid can trigger equilibrium phase transitions as well as the formation of non-equilibrium “arrested states,” such as gels and glasses. Faithful representation of such interactions is essential for using simulation to interrogate the microscopic details of non-equilibrium behavior and for extrapolating observations to new regions of phase space that are difficult to explore in experiments. Although the extended law of corresponding states predicts equilibrium phases for systems with short-ranged interactions, it proves inadequate for equilibrium predictions of systems with longer-ranged interactions and for predicting non-equilibrium phenomena in systems with either short- or long-ranged interactions. These shortcomings highlight the need for new approaches to represent and disambiguate interaction potentials that replicate both equilibrium and non-equilibrium phase behavior. In this work, we use experiments and simulations to study a system with long-ranged thermoresponsive colloidal interactions and explore whether a resolution to this challenge can be found in regions of the phase diagram where temporal effects influence material state. We demonstrate that the conditions for non-equilibrium arrest by colloidal gelation are sensitive to both the shape of the interaction potential and the thermal quench rate. We exploit this sensitivity to propose a kinetics-based algorithm to extract distinct arrest conditions for candidate potentials that accurately selects between potentials that differ in shape but share the same predicted equilibrium structure. The algorithm selects the candidate that best matches the non-equilibrium behavior between simulation and experiments. Because non-equilibrium behavior in simulation is encoded entirely by the interparticle potential, the results are agnostic to the particular mechanism(s) by which arrest occurs, and so we expect our method to apply to a range of arrested states, including gels and glasses. Beyond its utility in constructing models, the method reveals that each potential has a quantitatively distinct arrest line, providing insight into how the shape of longer-ranged potentials influences the conditions for colloidal gelation. 
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  4. Evolution of composition, rheology, and morphology during phase separation in complex fluids is highly coupled to rheological and mass transport processes within the emerging phases, and understanding this coupling is critical for materials design of multiphase complex fluids. Characterizing these dependencies typically requires careful measurement of a large number of equilibrium and transport properties that are difficult to measure in situ as phase separation proceeds. Here, we propose and demonstrate a high-throughput microscopy platform to achieve simultaneous, in situ mapping of time-evolving morphology and microrheology in phase separating complex fluids over a large compositional space. The method was applied to a canonical example of polyelectrolyte complex coacervation, whereby mixing of oppositely charged species leads to liquid–liquid phase separation into distinct solute-dense and dilute phases. Morphology and rheology were measured simultaneously and kinetically after mixing to track the progression of phase separation. Once equilibrated, the dense phase viscosity was determined to high compositional accuracy using passive probe microrheology, and the results were used to derive empirical relationships between the composition and viscosity. These relationships were inverted to reconstruct the dense phase boundary itself, and further extended to other mixture compositions. The resulting predictions were validated by independent equilibrium compositional measurements. This platform paves the way for rapid screening and formulation of complex fluids and (bio)macromolecular materials, and serves as a critical link between formulation and rheology for multi-phase material discovery. 
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  5. An important but often overlooked feature of Diels–Alder (DA) cycloadditions is the ability for DA adducts to undergo mechanically induced cycloreversion when placed under force. Herein, we demonstrate that the commonly employed DA cycloaddition between furan and maleimide to crosslink hydrogels results in slow gelation kinetics and “mechanolabile” crosslinks that relate to reduced material strength. Through rational computational design, “mechanoresistant” DA adducts were identified by constrained geometries simulate external force models and employed to enhance failure strength of crosslinked hydrogels. Additionally, utilization of a cyclopentadiene derivative, spiro[2.4]hepta-4,6-diene, provided mechanoresistant DA adducts and rapid gelation in minutes at room temperature. This study illustrates that strategic molecular-level design of DA crosslinks can provide biocompatible materials with improved processing, mechanical durability, lifetime, and utility. 
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