Tunable protein composites are important for constructing extracellular matrix mimics of human nerve tissues with control of charge, structural, and mechanical properties. Molecular interaction mechanisms between silk fibroin protein and recombinant human tropoelastin, based on charge, are utilized to generate a new group of multifunctional protein alloys with different net charges. These new biomaterials are then utilized as a biomaterial platform to control neuron cell response. With a +38 net charge in water, tropoelastin molecules provide extraordinary elasticity and selective interactions with cell surface integrins. In contrast, negatively charged silk fibroin protein (net charge −36) provides remarkable toughness and stiffness with morphologic stability in material formats via autoclaving-induced beta-sheet crystal physical crosslinks. The combination of these properties in alloy format extends the versatility of both structural proteins, providing a new biocompatible, biodegradable, and charge-tunable biomaterial platform for neural repair. The data point to these protein alloys as an alternative to commonly used charged synthetic polymers, particularly with regard to the versatility of material formats (e.g., gels, sponges, films, fibers). The results also provide a practical example of physically designed protein materials with control of net charge to direct biological outcomes, in this case for neuronal tissue engineering.
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