The Zha Lab seeks to create new biohybrid materials to tackle significant problems facing human healthcare and sustainability. Inspired by naturally occurring systems and phenomena, we synthesize functional materials that incorporate both biological and non-biological components. As is the case in nature, our materials are structured across multiple length scales, and supramolecular self-assembly lies at the foundation of our work. Our research is highly interdisciplinary and incorporates molecular engineering & synthesis, nanoscale characterization, materials development, and in vitro & in vivo assays. Read more to learn about the main research project interests within the Zha Group.   


Silk-Inspired Materials

Silk is a supramolecular material with exceptional mechanical properties and excellent biocompatibility. The properties of silk fibroin, the structural protein present in the core of silk threads, arise from its chemical architecture, in which crystalline and amorphous peptide segments alternate regularly along a linear backbone. Our work aims to develop recombinant and chemical strategies to synthesize silk-inspired macromolecules with tunable properties. Moreover, we seek to understand the relationship between chemical structure, nanoscale morphology, and macroscale properties in these materials.

Tanner D. Fink and R. Helen Zha*. “Silk and Silk-Like Supramolecular Materials”. Macromolecular Rapid Communications 2018 39 (17), 1700834.


Surface Modification via “Functional Fouling”

Our research leverages the supramolecular self-assembly of silk-like proteins into robust, defect-free coatings under aqueous and biocompatible conditions. This phenomenon relies on a balance of protein-surface and protein-protein interactions. The resulting coatings can significantly change the physicochemical properties of a variety of surfaces while requiring minimal substrate preparation. We are particularly interested in exploring these coatings as a method for generating antimicrobial, drug-eluting, non-fouling, bioelectronic, and other functional interfaces.

R. Helen Zha*, Peyman Delparastan, Tanner D. Fink, Joschka Bauer, Thomas Scheibel, and Phillip B. Messersmith. “Universal Nanothin Silk Coatings via Controlled Spidroin Self-Assembly”. Biomaterials Science 2019 7 (2), 683-695.