Advances in engineering hydrogels

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Science  05 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6337, eaaf3627
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3627

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Wet, soft, squishy, and tunable

Hydrogels are highly cross-linked polymer networks that are heavily swollen with water. Hydrogels have been used as dynamic, tunable, degradable materials for growing cells and tissues. Zhang and Khademhosseini review the advances in making hydrogels with improved mechanical strength and greater flexibility for use in a wide range of applications.

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Structured Abstract


Hydrogels are formed through the cross-linking of hydrophilic polymer chains within an aqueous microenvironment. The gelation can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms, spanning physical entanglement of polymer chains, electrostatic interactions, and covalent chemical cross-linking. The water-rich nature of hydrogels makes them broadly applicable to many areas, including tissue engineering, drug delivery, soft electronics, and actuators. Conventional hydrogels usually possess limited mechanical strength and are prone to permanent breakage. The lack of desired dynamic cues and structural complexity within the hydrogels has further limited their functions. Broadened applications of hydrogels, however, require advanced engineering of parameters such as mechanics and spatiotemporal presentation of active or bioactive moieties, as well as manipulation of multiscale shape, structure, and architecture.


Hydrogels with substantially improved physicochemical properties have been enabled by rational design at the molecular level and control over multiscale architecture. For example, formulations that combine permanent polymer networks with reversibly bonding chains for energy dissipation show strong toughness and stretchability. Similar strategies may also substantially enhance the bonding affinity of hydrogels at interfaces with solids by covalently anchoring the polymer networks of tough hydrogels onto solid surfaces. Shear-thinning hydrogels that feature reversible bonds impart a fluidic nature upon application of shear forces and return back to their gel states once the forces are released. Self-healing hydrogels based on nanomaterial hybridization, electrostatic interactions, and slide-ring configurations exhibit excellent abilities in spontaneously healing themselves after damages. Additionally, harnessing techniques that can dynamically and precisely configure hydrogels have resulted in flexibility to regulate their architecture, activity, and functionality. Dynamic modulations of polymer chain physics and chemistry can lead to temporal alteration of hydrogel structures in a programmed manner. Three-dimensional printing enables architectural control of hydrogels at high precision, with a potential to further integrate elements that enable change of hydrogel configurations along prescribed paths.


We envision the continuation of innovation in new bioorthogonal chemistries for making hydrogels, enabling their fabrication in the presence of biological species without impairing cellular or biomolecule functions. We also foresee opportunities in the further development of more sophisticated fabrication methods that allow better-controlled hydrogel architecture across multiple length scales. In addition, technologies that precisely regulate the physicochemical properties of hydrogels in spatiotemporally controlled manners are crucial in controlling their dynamics, such as degradation and dynamic presentation of biomolecules. We believe that the fabrication of hydrogels should be coupled with end applications in a feedback loop in order to achieve optimal designs through iterations. In the end, it is the combination of multiscale constituents and complementary strategies that will enable new applications of this important class of materials.

Engineering functional hydrogels with enhanced physicochemical properties.

Advances have been made to improve the mechanical properties of hydrogels as well as to make them shear-thinning, self-healing, and responsive. In addition, technologies have been developed to manipulate the shape, structure, and architecture of hydrogels with enhanced control and spatial precision.


Hydrogels are formed from hydrophilic polymer chains surrounded by a water-rich environment. They have widespread applications in various fields such as biomedicine, soft electronics, sensors, and actuators. Conventional hydrogels usually possess limited mechanical strength and are prone to permanent breakage. Further, the lack of dynamic cues and structural complexity within the hydrogels has limited their functions. Recent developments include engineering hydrogels that possess improved physicochemical properties, ranging from designs of innovative chemistries and compositions to integration of dynamic modulation and sophisticated architectures. We review major advances in designing and engineering hydrogels and strategies targeting precise manipulation of their properties across multiple scales.

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