Recombinant DNA methods were used to create artificial proteins that undergo reversible gelation in response to changes in pH or temperature. The proteins consist of terminal leucine zipper domains flanking a central, flexible, water-soluble polyelectrolyte segment. Formation of coiled-coil aggregates of the terminal domains in near-neutral aqueous solutions triggers formation of a three-dimensional polymer network, with the polyelectrolyte segment retaining solvent and preventing precipitation of the chain. Dissociation of the coiled-coil aggregates through elevation of pH or temperature causes dissolution of the gel and a return to the viscous behavior that is characteristic of polymer solutions. The mild conditions under which gel formation can be controlled (near-neutral pH and near- ambient temperature) suggest that these materials have potential in bioengineering applications requiring encapsulation or controlled release of molecular and cellular species.
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