From theory to application: DFG-funded Research Unit 2811 to develop switchable polymer gels

German Research Foundation approves second funding period for the investigation of polymer gels with a model-network structure / New focus on biomaterial applications

17 October 2022

The Research Unit on Adaptive Polymer Gels with Model-Network Structure (FOR 2811) has started work in a second phase. On completion of the first project stage that was predominated by fundamental theoretical work, the formerly seven and now eight partners are starting to tackle the application-related aspects of their undertaking in this new funding period. "It's great news that the German Research Foundation will continue to finance our project for a further three years. Our initial phase was overshadowed by the pandemic and thus the closure of labs," Professor Sebastian Seiffert, spokesperson for the group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), pointed out. "In this follow-up research phase, we will be placing the emphasis on potential applications, particularly targeting biomaterials in this connection." The German Research Foundation has made EUR 2.3 million available to the project partners for their research.

Polymers are substances or materials made up of many, often identical building blocks – examples include proteins and plastics. The researchers of FOR 2811 focus on soft polymers that consist of both hydrophobic and hydrophilic components. These components together form a shared network structure and can swell when exposed to water or organic solvents, thus making them permeable to a range of different substances. Polymer gels like this are thus suitable for use in a wide variety of applications. They could be employed, for example, as switchable cell substrates or antimicrobial coatings.

Close collaboration ensures new insights

At the beginning of their work, the partners concentrated on understanding the basic features of the nanostructures and microstructures of polymer gels. Seiffert explained their approach: "We first needed to comprehend how gel structures come into being. Is this perhaps attributable to the way they are generated or maybe the dominant ambient conditions around them?" The way that gel structures are formed can determine the characteristics of the corresponding materials, such as their mechanical properties or transport capacity.

Now that the researchers have sufficiently explored the nature of the underlying so-called amphiphilic co-networks and have published articles in this connection, they begin to turn their attention to material design. They will be looking primarily at biomaterials that can be used, for instance, to engineer tissues for biotechnological or biomedical applications. Here the cooperating partners are working closely together. "We complement each other perfectly in terms of our expertise, we bring together all our know-how, and interconnect our various subprojects," added Seiffert, who is Professor of Physical Chemistry of Polymers at JGU. "It would not have been possible through individual, independent projects to obtain our new insights into amphiphilic co-networks." In addition to the team at JGU, also participating are researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Polymer Research in Dresden (IPF), Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the University of Stuttgart, the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the Technical University of Darmstadt – and now included in the second funding period – Leibniz University Hannover.

In DFG-funded research units, outstanding and acknowledged specialists in their fields join forces to undertake promising research assignments. At the same time, the related projects must be of a particular academic quality and originality that make them relevant in an international context.