Non-equilibrium signal integration in hydrogels
Korevaar, Peter A.
Kaplan, C. Nadir
Rust, Reanne M.
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Materials that perform complex chemical signal processing are ubiquitous in living systems. Their synthetic analogs would transform developments in biomedicine, catalysis, and many other areas. By drawing inspiration from biological signaling dynamics, we show how simple hydrogels have a previously untapped capacity for non-equilibrium chemical signal processing and integration. Using a common polyacrylic acid hydrogel, with divalent cations and acid as representative stimuli, we demonstrate the emergence of non-monotonic osmosis-driven spikes and waves of expansion/contraction, as well as traveling color waves. These distinct responses emerge from different combinations of rates and sequences of arriving stimuli. A non-equilibrium continuum theory we developed quantitatively captures the non-monotonic osmosis-driven deformation waves and determines the onset of their emergence in terms of the input parameters. These results suggest that simple hydrogels, already built into numerous systems, have a much larger sensing space than currently employed.