Structure-Dependent Water Responsiveness of Protein Block Copolymers

Jacob Kronenberg, Yeojin Jung, Jason Chen, Maria Jinu Kulapurathazhe, Dustin Britton, Seungri Kim, Xi Chen, Raymond S. Tu, Jin Kim Montclare

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological water-responsive (WR) materials are abundant in nature, and they are used as mechanical actuators for seed dispersal by many plants such as wheat awns and pinecones. WR biomaterials are of interest for applications as high-energy actuators, which can be useful in soft robotics or for capturing energy from natural water evaporation. Recent work on WR silk proteins has shown that β-sheet nanocrystalline domains with high stiffness correlate with the high WR actuation energy density, but the fundamental mechanisms to drive water responsiveness in proteins remain poorly understood. Here, we design, synthesize, and study protein block copolymers consisting of two α-helical domains derived from cartilage oligomeric matrix protein coiled-coil (C) flanking an elastin-like peptide domain (E), namely, CEC. We use these protein materials to create WR actuators with energy densities that outperform mammalian muscle. To elucidate the effect of structure on WR actuation, CEC was compared to a variant, CECL44A, in which a point mutation disrupts the α-helical structure of the C domain. Surprisingly, CECL44A outperformed CEC, showing higher energy density and less susceptibility to degradation after repeated cycling. We show that CECL44A exhibits a higher degree of intermolecular interactions and is stiffer than CEC at high relative humidity (RH), allowing for less energy dissipation during water responsiveness. These results suggest that strong intermolecular interactions and the resulting, relatively steady protein structure are important for water responsiveness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalACS Applied Bio Materials
StateAccepted/In press - 2024


  • biomaterials
  • block copolymers
  • protein engineering
  • protein films
  • water-responsive materials

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biomaterials
  • General Chemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biochemistry, medical


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