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Characterization of hydrogel microstructure using laser tweezers particle tracking and confocal reflection imaging


Hydrogels are commonly used as extracellular matrix mimetics for applications in tissue engineering and increasingly as cell culture platforms with which to study the influence of biophysical and biochemical cues on cell function in 3D. In recent years, a significant number of studies have focused on linking substrate mechanical properties to cell function using standard methodologies to characterize the bulk mechanical properties of the hydrogel substrates. However, current understanding of the correlations between the microstructural mechanical properties of hydrogels and cell function in 3D is poor, in part because of a lack of appropriate techniques. Here we have utilized a laser tracking system, based on passive optical microrheology instrumentation, to characterize the microstructure of viscoelastic fibrin clots. Trajectories and mean square displacements were observed as bioinert PEGylated (PEG: polyethylene glycol) microspheres (1, 2 or 4.7 μm in diameter) diffused within confined pores created by the protein phase of fibrin hydrogels. Complementary confocal reflection imaging revealed microstructures comprised of a highly heterogeneous fibrin network with a wide range of pore sizes. As the protein concentration of fibrin gels was increased, our quantitative laser tracking measurements showed a corresponding decrease in particle mean square displacements with greater resolution and sensitivity than conventional imaging techniques. This platform-independent method will enable a more complete understanding of how changes in substrate mechanical properties simultaneously influence other microenvironmental parameters in 3D cultures.

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