Silk fibroin (SF) is extensively investigated in osteoregenerative therapy as it combines extraordinary mechanical properties and directs calcium-phosphate formation. However, the role of the peptidic fractions in inducing the protein mineralization has not been previously decoded. In this study, we investigated the mineralization of fibroin-derived polypeptides (FDPs), which were obtained through the chymotryptic separation of the hydrophobic crystalline (Cp) fractions and of the hydrophilic electronegative amorphous (Cs) fractions. When immersed in simulated body fluid (SBF), only Cs fragments demonstrated the formation of carbonated apatite, providing experimental evidence that the mineralization of SF is dictated exclusively by its electronegative amino-acidic sequences. The potential of Cs to conceptually mimic the role of anionic non-collagenous proteins in biomineralization processes was investigated via their incorporation (up to 10% by weight) in bulk osteoid-like dense collagen (DC) gels. Within 6 h in SBF, apatite was formed in DC-Cs hybrid gels, and by day 7, carbonated hydroxylapatite crystals were extensively formed. This accelerated 3-D mineralization resulted in a nine-fold increase in the compressive modulus of the hydrogel. The tailoring of the mineralization and mechanical properties of hydrogels through hybridization with FDPs could potentially have a significant impact on cell delivery and bone regenerative medicine.
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