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Soft Matter. 2010 Jan 1;6(18):4466-4470.

Nanoscopic mechanical anisotropy in hydrogel surfaces.

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  • 1Department of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield, Addison Building, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN, United Kingdom.


The bulk mechanical properties of soft materials have been studied widely, but it is unclear to what extent macroscopic behavior is reflected in nanomechanics. Using an atomic force microscopy (AFM) imaging method called force spectroscopy mapping (FSM), it is possible to map the nanoscopic spatial distribution of Young's modulus, i.e. "stiffness," and determine if soft or stiff polymer domains exist to correlate nano- and macro-mechanics. Two model hydrogel systems typically used in cell culture and polymerized by a free radical polymerization process, i.e. poly (vinyl pyrrolidone) (PVP) and poly(acrylamide) (PAam) hydrogels, were found to have significantly different nanomechanical behavior despite relatively similar bulk stiffness and roughness. PVP gels contained a large number of soft and stiff nanodomains, and their size was inversely related to crosslinking density and changes in crosslinking efficiency within the hydrogel. In contrast, PAam gels displayed small nanodomains occuring at low frequency, indicating relatively uniform polymerization. Given the responsiveness of cells to changes in gel stiffness, inhomogeneities found in the PVP network indicate that careful nanomechanical characterization of polymer substrates is necessary to appreciate complex cell behavior.

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