Adhesion and self-assembly of lubricin (PRG4) brush layers on different substrate surfaces
Lubricin (LUB, aka PRG4), a mucin-like glycoprotein, is best known for the significant role it plays in the boundary lubrication, wear protection, and adhesion control systems in human joints. However, LUB exhibits a number of diverse and useful properties, including a remarkable ability to self-assemble into a telechelic brush structure onto virtually any substrate. This self-assembly behavior has spawned the emergence of numerous nontraditional applications of LUB coatings in numerous areas such as microfluidics, electrochemical sensors, contact lenses, antifouling surfaces, and bionic neural interfaces. Although LUB will readily self-assemble on most substrates, it has become apparent that the substrate has a significant influence on the LUB layer's demonstrated lubrication, antiadhesion, electrokinetic, and size-selective transport properties; however, investigations into LUB-substrate interactions and how they influence the self-assembled LUB layer structure remain a neglected aspect of LUB research. This study utilizes AFM force spectroscopy to directly assess the adhesion energy of LUB molecules adsorbed to a wide variety of different substrates which include inorganic, polymeric, and metallic materials. An analysis of the steric repulsive forces measured on approach provides a qualitative assessment of the LUB layer's mechanical modulus, related to the chain packing density, across substrates. These modulus measurements, combined with characteristic features and the dwell time dependence of the LUB adhesion forces provide insight into the organization and uniformity of the LUB brush structure. The results of these measurements indicate that LUB interactions with different substrates are highly variable and substrate-specific, resulting in a surprisingly broad spectrum of adhesion energies and layer properties (i.e., chain density, uniformity, etc.) which are not, themselves, correlated or easily predicted by substrate properties. In addition, this study finds exceptionally poor LUB adhesion to both mica and poly(methyl methacrylate) surfaces that remain widely used substrates for constructing model surfaces in fundamental tribology studies which may have significant implications for the findings of a number of foundational studies into LUB tribology and molecular synergies.