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ECM protein nanofibers and nanostructures engineered using surface-initiated assembly.
The extracellular matrix (ECM) in tissues is synthesized and assembled by cells to form a 3D fibrillar, protein network with tightly regulated fiber diameter, composition and organization. In addition to providing structural support, the physical and chemical properties of the ECM play an important role in multiple cellular processes including adhesion, differentiation, and apoptosis. In vivo, the ECM is assembled by exposing cryptic self-assembly (fibrillogenesis) sites within proteins. This process varies for different proteins, but fibronectin (FN) fibrillogenesis is well-characterized and serves as a model system for cell-mediated ECM assembly. Specifically, cells use integrin receptors on the cell membrane to bind FN dimers and actomyosin-generated contractile forces to unfold and expose binding sites for assembly into insoluble fibers. This receptor-mediated process enables cells to assemble and organize the ECM from the cellular to tissue scales. Here, we present a method termed surface-initiated assembly (SIA), which recapitulates cell-mediated matrix assembly using protein-surface interactions to unfold ECM proteins and assemble them into insoluble fibers. First, ECM proteins are adsorbed onto a hydrophobic polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) surface where they partially denature (unfold) and expose cryptic binding domains. The unfolded proteins are then transferred in well-defined micro- and nanopatterns through microcontact printing onto a thermally responsive poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PIPAAm) surface. Thermally-triggered dissolution of the PIPAAm leads to final assembly and release of insoluble ECM protein nanofibers and nanostructures with well-defined geometries. Complex architectures are possible by engineering defined patterns on the PDMS stamps used for microcontact printing. In addition to FN, the SIA process can be used with laminin, fibrinogen and collagens type I and IV to create multi-component ECM nanostructures. Thus, SIA can be used to engineer ECM protein-based materials with precise control over the protein composition, fiber geometry and scaffold architecture in order to recapitulate the structure and composition of the ECM in vivo.