Hongji Yan, Cristina Chircov, Xueying Zhong, Benjamin Winkeljann, Illia Dobryden, Harriet Elisabeth Nilsson, Oliver Lieleg , Per Martin Claesson, Yolanda Hedberg, and Thomas Crouzier
Langmuir, 2018, 34 (45), pp 13615–13625
Publication year: 2018

Mucins are high molar mass glycoproteins that assume an extended conformation and can assemble into mucus hydrogels that protect our mucosal epithelium. In nature, the challenging task of generating a mucus layer, several hundreds of micrometers in thickness, from micrometer-sized cells is elegantly solved by the condensation of mucins inside vesicles and their on-demand release from the cells where they suddenly expand to form the extracellular mucus hydrogel. We aimed to recreate and control the process of compaction for mucins, the first step toward a better understanding of the process and creating biomimetic in vivo delivery strategies of macromolecules. We found that by adding glycerol to the aqueous solvent, we could induce drastic condensation of purified mucin molecules, reducing their size by an order of magnitude down to tens of nanometers in diameter. The condensation effect of glycerol was fully reversible and could be further enhanced and partially stabilized by cationic cross-linkers such as calcium and polylysine. The change of structure of mucins from extended molecules to nano-sized particles in the presence of glycerol translated into macroscopic rheological changes, as illustrated by a dampened shear-thinning effect with increasing glycerol concentration. This work provides new insight into mucin condensation, which could lead to new delivery strategies mimicking cell release of macromolecules condensed in vesicles such as mucins and heparin.

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