PEG, PEO, and POE refer to an oligomer or polymer of ethylene oxide. The three names are chemically synonymous, but historically PEG is preferred in the biomedical field, whereas PEO is more prevalent in the field of polymer chemistry. Because different applications require different polymer chain lengths, PEG has tended to refer to oligomers and polymers with a molecular mass below 20,000 g/mol, PEO to polymers with a molecular mass above 20,000 g/mol, and POE to a polymer of any molecular mass. PEGs are prepared by polymerization of ethylene oxide and are commercially available over a wide range of molecular weights from 300 g/mol to 10,000,000 g/mol.
PEG and PEO are liquids or low-melting solids, depending on their molecular weights. While PEG and PEO with different molecular weights find use in different applications, and have different physical properties (e.g. viscosity) due to chain length effects, their chemical properties are nearly identical. Different forms of PEG are also available, depending on the initiator used for the polymerization process – the most common initiator is a monofunctional methyl ether PEG, or methoxypoly(ethylene glycol), abbreviated mPEG. Lower-molecular-weight PEGs are also available as purer oligomers, referred to as monodisperse, uniform, or discrete. Very high purity PEG has recently been shown to be crystalline, allowing determination of a crystal structure by x-ray diffraction. Since purification and separation of pure oligomers is difficult, the price for this type of quality is often 10–1000 fold that of polydisperse PEG.
PEGs are also available with different geometries.
The numbers that are often included in the names of PEGs indicate their average molecular weights (e.g. a PEG with n = 9 would have an average molecular weight of approximately 400 daltons, and would be labeled PEG 400.) Most PEGs include molecules with a distribution of molecular weights (i.e. they are polydisperse). The size distribution can be characterized statistically by its weight average molecular weight (Mw) and its number average molecular weight (Mn), the ratio of which is called the polydispersity index (Mw/Mn). Mw and Mn can be measured by mass spectrometry.
PEGylation is the act of covalently coupling a PEG structure to another larger molecule, for example, a therapeutic protein, which is then referred to as a PEGylated protein. PEGylated interferon alfa-2a or −2b are commonly used injectable treatments for hepatitis C infection.