An interdisciplinary team has unraveled how functional biomaterials rely upon an interfacial protein layer to transmit signals to living cells concerning their adhesion, proliferation, and overall development.

According to an article published in Scientific Reports, the nanoscale features and properties of an underlying substrate do not impact the biological response of cells directly. However, these properties indirectly influence cell behavior through their control over adsorbed proteins.

The researchers demonstrated that living cells respond to interfacial layer characteristics that arise as a consequence of micro- and nano-scale structures engineered into a substrate material. These infinitesimally tiny structures have an enormous impact upon the nature of the proteins and how they restructure themselves and electrostatically interact with the material, which in turn influences the manner in which cells attach to the substrate and develop over time.

“There are others who have studied the interfacial protein layer,” says materials science and engineering professor Himanshu Jain, who also directs Lehigh’s Institute for Functional Materials and Devices (I-FMD). “But this work showed directly and unambiguously for the first time how some specific nanoscale features of the substrate can impact the secondary molecular structure of the proteinated interface that in turn affects the response of the cells that are thousands of times larger.”

Study collaborators also include Matthias Falk, a professor of cell biology in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences, as well as two doctoral students jointly supervised by Falk and Jain.