Biomacromolecules, Vol.15, No.8, 3044-3051, 2014
Reversible Hydrogel-Solution System of Silk with High Beta-Sheet Content
Silkworm silk has been widely used as a textile fiber, as biomaterials and in optically functional materials due to its extraordinary properties. The beta-sheet-rich natural nanofiber units of about 10-50 nm in diameter are often considered the origin of these properties, yet it remains unclear how silk self-assembles into these hierarchical structures. A new system composed of beta-sheet-rich silk nanofibers about 10-20 nm in diameter is reported here, where these nanofibers formed into "flowing hydrogels" at 0.5-2% solutions and could be transformed back into the solution state at lower concentrations, even with a high beta-sheet content. This is in contrast with other silk processed materials, where significant beta-sheet content negates reversibility between solution and solid states. These fibers are formed by regulating the self-assembly process of silk in aqueous solution, which changes the distribution of negative charges while still supporting beta-sheet formation in the structures. Mechanistically, there appears to be a shift toward negative charges along the outside of the silk nanofibers in our present study, resulting in a higher zeta potential (above -50 mV) than previous silk materials which tend to be below -30 mV. The higher negative charge on silk nanofibers resulted in electrostatic repulsion strong enough to negate further assembly of the nanofibers. Changing silk concentration changed the balance between hydrophobic interactions and electrostatic repulsion of beta-sheet-rich silk nanofibers, resulting in reversible hydrogel solution transitions. Furthermore, the silk nanofibers could be disassembled into shorter fibers and even nanoparticles upon ultrasonic treatment following the transition from hydrogel to solution due to the increased dispersion of hydrophobic smaller particles, without the loss of beta-sheet content, and with retention of the ability to transition between hydrogel and solution states through reversion to longer nanofibers during self-assembly. These reversible solution-hydrogel transitions were tunable with ultrasonic intensity, time, or temperature.