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We report here the synthesis of a new class of hydrogels with an extremely wide range of mechanical properties suitable for cell studies. Mechanobiology has emerged as an important field in bioengineering, in part due to the development of synthetic polymer gels and fibrous protein biomaterials to control and quantify how cells sense and respond to mechanical forces in their microenvironment. To address the problem of limited availability of biomaterials, in terms of both mechanical range and optical clarity, we have prepared hydrogels that combine poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) and phosphorylcholine (PC) zwitterions. Our goal was to create a hydrogel platform that exceeds the range of Young’s moduli reported for similar hydrogels, while being simple to synthesize and manipulate. The Young’s modulus of these “PEG-PC” hydrogels can be tuned over 4 orders of magnitude, much greater than commonly used hydrogels such as PEG-diacrylate, PEG-dimethacrylate, and polyacrylamide, with smaller average mesh sizes and optical clarity. We prepared PEG-PC hydrogels to study how substrate mechanical properties influence cell morphology, focal adhesion structure, and proliferation across multiple mammalian cell lines, as a proof of concept. These novel PEG-PC biomaterials represent a new and useful class of mechanically tunable hydrogels for mechanobiology.







This work was supported by a generous start-up package from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the National Science Foundation Materials Research Science and Engineering Center on Polymers at UMass (DMR-0820506) to S.R.P. S.R.P. and T.V.N. were partially supported by a Barry and Afsaneh Siadat Career Development Award. W.G.H. was supported by a fellowship from the Institute of Cellular Engineering IGERT at UMass. S.M. was supported through a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.