This multidisciplinary team sits at the intersection of science and engineering, and seeks to establish the fundamental knowledge base needed to inspire cutting-edge practical applications of complex biological hydrogels. Such materials are abundantly used in nature, with properties that are unachieved by current synthetic materials. These include the ability to selectively filter complex solutions while retaining unique self-healing capabilities, to function as physical barriers that allow the penetration of bacteria while suppressing biofilm formation, and to maintain highly compressive states while providing a high level of lubrication. The goal of this IRG is to gain quantitative insight into, and predictive capability of, the molecular mechanisms that govern the unique structure and property combinations of complex biological hydrogels.
We will use this fundamental knowledge to guide the synthesis, fabrication and evaluation of next generation materials with potentially wide engineering implications, such as the design of self-healing filtration systems for water and food purification, new antimicrobial coatings for implants, or cartilage substitutes with high durability and lubrication capacity.
Current synthetic approaches are largely unable to recapitulate the sophisticated materials properties found in complex biological hydrogels. One reason for this is our lack of mechanistic understanding of the microscopic structures and chemistries that build and regulate natural hydrogels. This IRG will systematically analyze selected critical factors involved in complex biological hydrogel function, using an interdisciplinary set of tools that the investigators bring together, including the isolation and reconstitution of natural hydrogels, the chemical synthesis of bio-inspired polymers, molecular tools for controlling polymerization, and the state-of-the-art materials properties analysis, and molecular modeling. In particular, this IRG will focus on the study of three basic molecular elements that are found in complex biological hydrogels: a) conserved domains with repeating sequences, b) reversible/dynamic crosslinks, and c) variable glycosylation patterns.