Various techniques have been adopted to impart a biological responsiveness to synthetic hydrogels for the delivery of therapeutic agents as well as the study and manipulation of biological processes and tissue development. Such techniques and materials include polyelectrolyte gels that swell and deswell with changes in pH, therm sensitive gels that contract at physiological temperatures, and peptide cross-linked hydrogels that degrade upon peptidolysis by cell-secreted enzymes. Herein we report a unique approach to photochemically deform and degrade disulfide cross-linked hydrogels, mitigating the challenges of light attenuation and low quantum yield, permitting the degradation of hydrogels up to 2 mm thick within 120s at low light intensities (10 mW/cm(2) at 365 nm). Hydrogels were formed by the oxidation of thiol-functionalized 4-armed poly(ethylene glycol) macromolecules. These disulfide cross-linked hydrogels were then swollen in a lithium acylphosphinate photoinitiator solution. Upon exposure to light, photogenerated radicals initiate multiple fragmentation and disulfide exchange reactions, permitting and promoting photodeformation, photowelding, and photo degradation. This novel, but simple, approach to generate photoadaptable hydrogels portends the study of cellular response to mechanically and topographically dynamic substrates as well as novel encapsulations by the welding of solid substrates. The principles and techniques described herein hold implications for more than hydrogel materials but also for photoadaptable polymers more generally.
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