Harnessing biomimetic cryptic bonds to form self-reinforcing gels
Cryptic sites, which lay hidden in folded biomolecules, become exposed by applied force and form new bonds that reinforce the biomaterial. While these binding interactions effectively inhibit mechanical deformation, there are few synthetic materials that harness mechano-responsive cryptic sites to forestall damage. Here, we develop a computational model to design polymer gels encompassing cryptic sites and a lower critical solution temperature (LCST). LCST gels swell with a decrease in temperature, thereby generating internal stresses within the sample. The gels also encompass loops held together by the cryptic sites, as well as dangling chains with chemically reactive ends. A decrease in temperature or an applied force causes the loops to unfold and expose the cryptic sites, which then bind to the dangling chains. We show that these binding interactions act as “struts” that reinforce the network, as indicated by a significant decrease in the volume of the gel (from 44% to 80%) and shifts in the volume phase transition temperature. Once the temperature is increased or the deformation is removed, the latter “cryptic bonds” are broken, allowing the loops to refold and the gel to return to its original state. These findings provide guidelines for designing polymer networks with reversible, mechano-responsive bonds, which allow gels to undergo a self-stiffening behavior in response to a temperature-induced internal stress or external force. When applied as a coating, these gels can prevent the underlying materials from undergoing damage and thus, extend the lifetime of the system.