A strategy for responsively toughening an injectable protein hydrogel has been implemented by incorporating an associative protein as the midblock in triblock copolymers with thermoresponsive poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM) endblocks, producing materials with a low yield stress necessary for injectability and durability required for load-bearing applications post-injection. Responsive reinforcement triggered by PNIPAM association leads to significant increases in the gel's elastic modulus as well as its resistance to creep. The performance of these materials is a strong function of molecular design, with certain formulations reaching elastic moduli of up to 130 kPa, effectively reinforced by a factor of 14 over their low temperature moduli, and having stress relaxation times increased by up to a factor of 50. The nanostructural origins of these thermoresponsive enhancements were explored, demonstrating that large micellar cores, high PNIPAM volume fractions, and high densities of associating groups in the protein corona lead to the greatest reinforcement of the gel's elastic modulus. Gels with the largest micelles and the highest packing fractions also had the longest relaxation times in the reinforced state. These combined structure and mechanics studies reveal that control of both the micellar and protein networks is critical for making high performance gels relevant for biomedical applications.
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