Biomacromolecules, Vol.5, No.3, 786-792, 2004
Structure and properties of silk hydrogels
Control of silk fibroin concentration in aqueous solutions via osmotic stress was studied to assess relationships to gel formation and structural, morphological, and functional (mechanical) changes associated with this process. Environmental factors potentially important in the in vivo processing of aqueous silk fibroin were also studied to determine their contributions to this process. Gelation of silk fibroin aqueous solutions was affected by temperature, Ca2+, pH, and poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO). Gelation time decreased with increase in protein concentration, decrease in pH, increase in temperature, addition of Ca2+, and addition of PEO. No change of gelation time was observed with the addition of K+. Upon gelation, a random coil structure of the silk fibroin was transformed into a beta-sheet structure. Hydrogels with fibroin concentrations > 4 wt % exhibited network and spongelike structures on the basis of scanning electron microscopy. Pore sizes of the freeze-dried hydrogels were smaller as the silk fibroin concentration or gelation temperature was increased. Freeze-dried hydrogels formed in the presence of Ca2+ exhibited larger pores as the concentration of this ion was increased. Mechanical compressive strength and modulus of the hydrogels increased with increase in protein concentration and gelation temperature. The results of these studies provide insight into the sol-gel transitions that silk fibroin undergoes in glands during aqueous processing while also providing important insight in the in vitro processing of these proteins into useful new materials.