Molecular engineering of metal coordination interactions for strong, tough, and fast-recovery hydrogels

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Science Advances  17 Apr 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 16, eaaz9531
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz9531


Many load-bearing tissues, such as muscles and cartilages, show high elasticity, toughness, and fast recovery. However, combining these mechanical properties in the same synthetic biomaterials is fundamentally challenging. Here, we show that strong, tough, and fast-recovery hydrogels can be engineered using cross-linkers involving cooperative dynamic interactions. We designed a histidine-rich decapeptide containing two tandem zinc binding motifs. Because of allosteric structural change-induced cooperative binding, this decapeptide had a higher thermodynamic stability, stronger binding strength, and faster binding rate than single binding motifs or isolated ligands. The engineered hybrid network hydrogels containing the peptide-zinc complex exhibit a break stress of ~3.0 MPa, toughness of ~4.0 MJ m−3, and fast recovery in seconds. We expect that they can function effectively as scaffolds for load-bearing tissue engineering and as building blocks for soft robotics. Our results provide a general route to tune the mechanical and dynamic properties of hydrogels at the molecular level.

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