A new area of research in our group is designing approaches to amplify chemical signals through gelation to obtain macroscopic readouts of microscopic events. We are particularly inspired by the slime produced by hagfish, wherein remarkably low concentrations of insoluble protein fibers (0.002 wt%) combine with similar amounts of a soluble protein to immobilize up to a liter of water in less than 1 s. Our group aims to generate a chemically analogous system, wherein water-insoluble polymers (or small molecules) are released from capsules and combined with a water-soluble component to form a local or global hydrogel. In addition to providing a visual indication of where capsule release has occurred, gelation can also serve to interrupt particle translocation. We are also developing new, functional polymers for use in triggerable microcapsules.
This research project is a collaborative effort between members of the Center for Autonomous Chemistry (CAC). Founding members include Sankaran Thayumanavan (UMass Amherst), Tim Swager (MIT), Jeffrey Moore (University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign), Vince Rotello (University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign), and Anne McNeil (University of Michigan). The CAC draws inspiration from the complex, self-regulating behavior found in many biological systems. These systems are fundamentally chemical in nature, where molecular-level signals effect large-scale changes. By capitalizing on our knowledge of complex chemical phenomena, such as self-assembly, microencapsulation, molecular recognition, and signal amplification, we envision rationally designedself-regulating chemical systems. The CAC seeks to uncover the key factors that underlie autonomous behavior and to translate this knowledge to new technologies in numerous diverse areas, including diagnostics, sensing, self-healing, and drug delivery.