Zein is a corn prolamin that has broad industrial applications because of its unique physical properties. Currently, the high cost of extraction and purification, which is directly related to the dispersion of zein in different solvents, is the major bottleneck of the zein industry. Solution behaviors of zein have been studied for a long time. However, the physical nature of zein in different solvents remains unclear. In this study, small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), static light scattering (SLS), and rheology were combined to study the structure and protein-solvent interaction of alpha-zein in both acetic acid and aqueous ethanol solutions. We found that the like-dissolve-like rule, the partial unfolding, and the protonation of zein are all critical to understanding the solution behaviors. Zein holds an elongated conformation (i.e., prolate ellipsoid) in all solutions, as revealed from SAXS data. There is an "aging effect" for zein in aqueous ethanol solutions, as evidenced by the transition of Newtonian rheological profiles for fresh zein solutions to the non-Newtonian shear thinning behavior for zein solutions after storage at room temperature for 24 h. Such shear thinning behavior becomes more pronounced for zein solutions at higher concentrations. The SLS results clearly show that acetic acid is a better solvent to dissolve zein than aqueous ethanol solution, as supported by a more negative second virial coefficient. This is majorly caused by the protonation of the protein, which was further verified by the dissolution of zein in water (a nonsolvent for zein) with the addition of acids.
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