Biomacromolecules, Vol.22, No.5, 1955-1965, 2021
Birefringent Silk Fibroin Hydrogel Constructed via Binary Solvent-Exchange-Induced Self-Assembly
Birefringent hydrogels have a strong potential for applications in biomedicine and optics as they can modulate the optical and mechanical anisotropy in confined two-dimensional geometries. However, production of birefringent hydrogels with hierarchical structures, mechanical properties, and biorelated behavior that are analogous to biological tissues is still challenging. Starting from the silk fibroin (SF)-ionic liquid solution system, this study aimed to rationally design a "binary solvent-exchange-induced self-assembly (BSEISA)" strategy to produce birefringent SF hydrogels (SFHs). In this method, the conformational transition rate of SF can be effectively controlled by the exchange rate of the binary solvents. Therefore, this method provides the possibility of controlling the conformation and orientation of SF. Molecular simulations confirmed that methanol is more effective in driving beta-sheet formation than other often used solvents, such as formic acid and water. The formed beta-sheets act as the physical cross-links that connect disparate protein chains, thereby forming continuous and stable three-dimensional (3D) hydrogel networks. The resultant BSEISA-SFHs are transparent and birefringent with mechanical characteristics similar to those of soft biological tissues, such as lens and cartilage. Interestingly, our results revealed that the evolution of experimental birefringent fringes perfectly matched the changes in stress distribution predicted using finite element analysis. Owing to the unique birefringence of BSEISA-SFHs, together with the advantages in mechanical performance, these hydrogels are anticipated to act as good tissue surrogates for understanding the mechanical response of biological tissues.