Combinatorial hydrogels with biochemical gradients for screening 3D cellular microenvironments

Nat Commun. 2018 Feb 9;9(1):614. doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-03021-5.


3D microenvironmental parameters control cell behavior, but can be challenging to investigate over a wide range of conditions. Here, a combinatorial hydrogel platform is developed that uses light-mediated thiol-norbornene chemistry to encapsulate cells within hydrogels with biochemical gradients made by spatially varied light exposure. Specifically, mesenchymal stem cells are photoencapsulated in norbornene-modified hyaluronic acid hydrogels functionalized with gradients (0-5 mM) of peptides that mimic cell-cell or cell-matrix interactions, either as single or orthogonal gradients. Chondrogenesis varied spatially in these hydrogels based on the local biochemical formulation, as indicated by Sox9 and aggrecan expression levels. From 100 combinations investigated, discrete hydrogels are formulated and early gene expression and long-term cartilage-specific matrix production are assayed and found to be consistent with screening predictions. This platform is a scalable, high-throughput technique that enables the screening of the effects of multiple biochemical signals on 3D cell behavior.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cellular Microenvironment*
  • Chondrogenesis
  • Combinatorial Chemistry Techniques*
  • Hyaluronic Acid / chemistry
  • Hydrogels / chemistry*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / physiology
  • Norbornanes / chemistry
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds / chemistry


  • Hydrogels
  • Norbornanes
  • Peptides
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • 2-norbornene
  • Hyaluronic Acid