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Enzyme-Triggered Folding of Hydrogels: Toward a Mimic of the Venus Flytrap

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journal contribution
posted on 13.07.2016, 07:08 by Jasmin C. Athas, Catherine P. Nguyen, Brady C. Zarket, Ankit Gargava, Zhihong Nie, Srinivasa R. Raghavan
External triggers such as pH or temperature can induce hydrogels to swell or shrink rapidly. Recently, these triggers have also been used to alter the three-dimensional (3-D) shapes of gels: for example, a flat gel sheet can be induced to fold into a tube. Self-folding gels are reminiscent of natural structures such as the Venus flytrap, which folds its leaves to entrap its prey. They are also of interest for applications in sensing or microrobotics. However, to advance the utility of self-folding gels, the range of triggers needs to be expanded beyond the conventional ones. Toward this end, we have designed a class of gels that change shape in response to very low concentrations of specific biomolecules. The gels are hybrids of three different constituents: (A) polyethylene glycol diacrylate (PEGDA); (B) gelatin methacrylate-co-polyethylene glycol dimethacrylate (GelMA-co-PEGDMA); and (C) N-isopropylacrylamide (NIPA). The thin-film hybrid is constructed as a bilayer or sandwich of two layers, with an A/B layer (alternating strips of A and B) sandwiched above a layer of gel C. Initially, when this hybrid gel is placed in water, the C layer is much more swollen than the A/B layer. Despite the swelling mismatch, the sheet remains flat because the A/B layer is very stiff. When collagenase enzyme is added to the water, it cleaves the gelatin chains in B, thus reducing the stiffness of the A/B layer. As a result, the swollen C layer is able to fold over the A/B layer, causing the sheet to transform into a specific shape. The typical transition is from flat sheet to closed hollow tube, and the time scale for this transition decreases with increasing enzyme concentration. Shape transitions are induced by enzyme levels as low as 0.75 U/mL. Interestingly, a shape transition is also induced by adding the lysate of murine fibroblast cells, which contains enzymes from the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) family at levels around 0.1 U/mL (MMPs are similar to collagenase in their ability to cleave gelatin). We further show that transitions from flat sheets to other shapes such as helices and pancakes can be engineered by altering the design pattern of the gel. Additionally, we have made a rudimentary analog of the Venus flytrap, with two flat gels (“leaves”) flanking a central folding gel (“hinge”). When enzyme is added, the hinge bends and brings the leaves together, trapping objects in the middle.