Researchers from Tufts University’s School of Engineering in Massachusetts have developed a water-based fabrication method based on protein self-assembly.

By controlling the self-assembly process, the team created a three-dimensional solid. The solid is machinable; they say the resulting components can be nanopatterned, heated on demand in response to infrared light, or embedded with colorimetric chemistry that shows mechanical failure.

Silkworm and cocoon.Silkworm and cocoon.To demonstrate potential applications, the researchers created several items: a surgical pin that changes color when it is about to fail, screws that heat with infrared light, and a biocompatible component that can release bioactive agents.

Silk is an excellent material choice for biological applications, the researchers say. It is strong and the fibroin component can protect other materials. Silk also is biocompatible and biodegradable.

"The ability to embed functional elements in biopolymers, control their self-assembly, and modify their ultimate form creates significant opportunities for bio-inspired fabrication of high-performing multifunctional materials," says senior study author Fiorenzo G. Omenetto.

Omenetto’s Silk Lab at Tufts has already contributed several biomedical applications for silk protein. The current experimentation is a step towards development of devices that bridge the gap between biology and technology.

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