The controlled exchange of molecules between organelles, cells, or organisms and their environment is crucial for life. Biological gels such as mucus, the extracellular matrix (ECM), and the biopolymer barrier within the nuclear pore are well suited to achieve such a selective exchange, allowing passage of particular molecules while rejecting many others. Although hydrogel-based filters are integral parts of biology, clear concepts of how their barrier function is controlled at a microscopic level are still missing. We summarize here our current understanding of how selective filtering is established by different biopolymer-based hydrogels. We ask if the modulation of microscopic particle transport in biological hydrogels is based on a generic filtering principle which employs biochemical/biophysical interactions with the filtered molecules rather than size-exclusion effects.
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