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Keywords:

  • biomimetics;
  • hydrogels;
  • polymeric materials;
  • structure-property relationships

Abstract

The mechanical holdfast of the mussel, the byssus, is processed at acidic pH yet functions at alkaline pH. Byssi are enriched in Fe3+ and catechol-containing proteins, species with chemical interactions that vary widely over the pH range of byssal processing. Currently, the link between pH, Fe3+-catechol reactions, and mechanical function is poorly understood. Herein, it is described how pH influences the mechanical performance of materials formed by reacting synthetic catechol polymers with Fe3+. Processing Fe3+-catechol polymer materials through a mussel-mimetic acidic-to-alkaline pH change leads to mechanically tough materials based on a covalent network fortified by sacrificial Fe3+-catechol coordination bonds. These findings offer the first direct evidence of Fe3+-induced covalent cross-linking of catechol polymers, reveal additional insight into the pH dependence and mechanical role of Fe3+-catechol interactions in mussel byssi, and illustrate the wide range of physical properties accessible in synthetic materials through mimicry of mussel-protein chemistry and processing.