This work describes the use of aqueous two-phase systems to print cell-containing contractile collagen microdroplets. The fully aqueous conditions enable convenient formation of sub-microliter 'microgels' that are much smaller than otherwise possible to fabricate while maintaining high cell viability. The produced microgels contract over several days, mimicking the behavior of macroscale contraction assays, which have been valued as an important biological readout for over three decades. Use of microgels not only reduces reagent consumption and increases throughput of the assay, but also improves transport of molecules into and out of the collagen matrix, thereby enabling efficient and more precise studies of timed stimulation profiles. Utility of the technology is demonstrated by analyzing the effects of TGF-β1 on gel contraction, and we demonstrate that brief 'burst' stimulation profiles in microgels prompt contraction of the matrix, a feature not observed in the conventional macroscale assay. The fully aqueous process also enables the integration of contractile collagen microgels within existing cell culture systems, and we demonstrate proof-of-principle experiments in which a contractile collagen droplet is fabricated in situ on an existing epithelial monolayer. The simplicity, versatility and ability to robustly produce collagen microgels should allow effective translation of this microengineering technology into a variety of research environments.
Keywords: Aqueous two-phase system; Collagen; Contraction; Micropatterning; Miniaturization; Timed stimulation.
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