Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemical & Biochemical Engineering

First Advisor

Kristi S. Anseth

Second Advisor

Stephanie J. Bryant

Third Advisor

Jennifer N. Cha

Fourth Advisor

Curt R. Freed

Fifth Advisor

Joel L. Kaar


This thesis focuses on studying the extension of motor axons through synthetic poly(ethylene glycol) PEG hydrogels that have been modified with biochemical functionalities to render them more biologically relevant. Specifically, the research strategy is to encapsulate embryonic stem cell-derived motor neurons (ESMNs) in synthetic PEG hydrogels crosslinked through three different chemistries providing three mechanisms for dynamically tuning material properties. First, a covalently crosslinked, enzymatically degradable hydrogel is developed and exploited to study the biophysical dynamics of axon extension and matrix remodeling. It is demonstrated that dispersed motor neurons require a battery of adhesive peptides and growth factors to maintain viability and extend axons while those in contact with supportive neuroglial cells do not. Additionally, cell-degradable crosslinker peptides and a soft modulus mimicking that of the spinal cord are requirements for axon extension. However, because local degradation of the hydrogel results in a cellular environment significantly different than that of the bulk, enzymatically degradable peptide crosslinkers were replaced with reversible covalent hydrazone bonds to study the effect of hydrogel modulus on axon extension. This material is characterized in detail and used to measure forces involved in axon extension. Finally, a hydrogel with photocleavable linkers incorporated into the network structure is exploited to explore motor axon response to physical channels. This system is used to direct the growth of motor axons towards co-cultured myotubes, resulting in the formation of an in vitro neural circuit.