A photoreceptor-based hydrogel with red light-responsive reversible sol-gel transition as transient cellular matrix.
Abstract: Hydrogels with adjustable mechanical properties have been engineered as matrices for mammalian cells and allow the dynamic, mechano-responsive manipulation of cell fate and function. Recent research yielded hydrogels, where biological photoreceptors translated optical signals into a reversible and adjustable change in hydrogel mechanics. While their initial application provided important insights into mechanobiology, broader implementation is limited by a small dynamic range of addressable stiffness. Here, we overcome this limitation by developing a photoreceptor-based hydrogel with reversibly adjustable stiffness from 800 Pa to the sol state. The hydrogel is based on star-shaped polyethylene glycol, functionalized with the red/far-red light photoreceptor phytochrome B (PhyB), or phytochrome-interacting factor 6 (PIF6). Upon illumination with red light, PhyB heterodimerizes with PIF6, thus crosslinking the polymers and resulting in gelation. However, upon illumination with far-red light, the proteins dissociate and trigger a complete gel-to-sol transition. We comprehensively characterize the hydrogel’s light-responsive mechanical properties and apply it as reversible extracellular matrix for the spatiotemporally controlled deposition of mammalian cells within a microfluidic chip. We anticipate that this technology will open new avenues for the site- and time-specific positioning of cells and will contribute to overcome spatial restrictions.