A de novo designed β-hairpin peptide (MAX8), capable of undergoing intramolecular folding and consequent intermolecular self-assembly into a cytocompatible hydrogel, has been studied. A combination of small angle neutron scattering (SANS) and cryogenic-transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM) have been used to quantitatively investigate the MAX8 nanofibrillar hydrogel network morphology. A change in the peptide concentration from 0.5 to 2 wt% resulted in a denser fibrillar network as revealed viaSANS by a change in the high q (q = (4π/λ) × sin (θ/2), where λ = wavelength of incident neutrons and θ = scattering angle) mass fractal exponent from 2.5 to 3 and by a decrease in the measured correlation length from 23 to 16 Å. A slope of −4 in the USANS regime indicates well-defined gel microporosity, an important characteristic for cellular substrate applications. These changes, both at the network as well as the individual fibril lengthscales, can be directly visualized in situ by cryo-TEM. Fibrillar nanostructures and network properties are directly related to bulk hydrogel stiffness via oscillatory rheology. Preliminary cell viability and anchorage studies at varying hydrogel stiffness confirm cell adhesion at early stages of cell culture within the window of stiffness investigated. Knowledge of the precise structure spanning length scales from the nanoscale up to the microscale can help in the formation of future, specific structure–bioproperty relationships when studying in vitro and in vivo behavior of these new peptide scaffolds.
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