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Designing soft materials that mimic biological functions

Increase font size  Decrease font size Date:2021-03-04   Views:21

Northwestern Engineering researchers have developed a theoretical model to design soft materials that demonstrate autonomous oscillating properties that mimic biological functions. The work could advance the design of responsive materials used to deliver therapeutics as well as for robot-like soft materials that operate autonomously.

The design and synthesis of materials with biological functions require a delicate balance between structural form and physiological function. During embryonic development, for instance, flat sheets of embryonic cells morph through a series of folds into intricate three-dimensional structures such as branches, tubes, and furrows. These, in turn, become dynamic, three-dimensional building blocks for organs performing vital functions like heartbeat, nutrient absorption, or information processing by the nervous system.

Such shape-forming processes, however, are controlled by chemical and mechanical signaling events, which are not fully understood on the microscopic level. To bridge this gap, researchers led by Monica Olvera de la Cruz designed computational and experimental systems that mimic these biological interactions. Hydrogels, a class of hydrophilic polymer materials, have emerged as candidates capable of reproducing shape changes upon chemical and mechanical stimulation observed in nature.

The researchers developed a theoretical model for a hydrogel-based shell that underwent autonomous morphological changes when induced by chemical reactions.

"We found that the chemicals modified the local gel microenvironment, allowing swelling and deswelling of materials via chemo-mechanical stresses in an autonomous manner," said de la Cruz, Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. "This generated dynamic morphological change, including periodic oscillations reminiscent of heartbeats found in living systems."

A paper, titled "Chemically Controlled Pattern Formation in Self-oscillating Elastic Shells," was published March 1 in the journal PNAS. Siyu Li and Daniel Matoz-Fernandez, postdoctoral fellows in Olvera de la Cruz's lab, were the paper's co-first authors.

 
 
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