Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Biomimetic self-templating supramolecular structures


In nature, helical macromolecules such as collagen, chitin and cellulose are critical to the morphogenesis and functionality of various hierarchically structured materials1,2,3. During tissue formation, these chiral macromolecules are secreted and undergo self-templating assembly, a process whereby multiple kinetic factors influence the assembly of the incoming building blocks to produce non-equilibrium structures1,4. A single macromolecule can form diverse functional structures when self-templated under different conditions. Collagen type I, for instance, forms transparent corneal tissues from orthogonally aligned nematic fibres5, distinctively coloured skin tissues from cholesteric phase fibre bundles6,7, and mineralized tissues from hierarchically organized fibres8. Nature’s self-templated materials surpass the functional and structural complexity achievable by current top-down and bottom-up fabrication methods9,10,11,12. However, self-templating has not been thoroughly explored for engineering synthetic materials. Here we demonstrate the biomimetic, self-templating assembly of chiral colloidal particles (M13 phage) into functional materials. A single-step process produces long-range-ordered, supramolecular films showing multiple levels of hierarchical organization and helical twist. Three distinct supramolecular structures are created by this approach: nematic orthogonal twists, cholesteric helical ribbons and smectic helicolidal nanofilaments. Both chiral liquid crystalline phase transitions and competing interfacial forces at the interface are found to be critical factors in determining the morphology of the templated structures during assembly. The resulting materials show distinctive optical and photonic properties, functioning as chiral reflector/filters and structural colour matrices. In addition, M13 phages with genetically incorporated bioactive peptide ligands direct both soft and hard tissue growth in a hierarchically organized manner. Our assembly approach provides insight into the complexities of hierarchical assembly in nature and could be expanded to other chiral molecules to engineer sophisticated functional helical-twisted structures.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Schematic diagram of the phage-based self-templating process.
Figure 2: Self-templated helical supramolecular structures.
Figure 3: Optical properties of the self-templated supramolecular structures.
Figure 4: Growth of biomimetic soft and hard tissue on the self-templated structures.


  1. 1

    Neville, A. C. Biology of Fibrous Composites: Development Beyond the Cell Membrane (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Stewart, G. T. Liquid crystals in biology. I. Historical, biological and medical aspects. Liq. Cryst. 30, 541–557 (2003)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Place, E. S., Evans, N. D. & Stevens, M. M. Complexity in biomaterials for tissue engineering. Nature Mater. 8, 457–470 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Nelson, C. M., Van Duijn, M. M., Inman, J. L., Fletcher, D. A. & Bissell, M. J. Tissue geometry determines sites of mammary branching morphogenesis in organotypic cultures. Science 314, 298–300 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Holmes, D. F. et al. Corneal collagen fibril structure in three dimensions: structural insights into fibril assembly, mechanical properties, and tissue organization. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 98, 7307–7312 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Prum, R. O. & Torres, R. Structural colouration of mammalian skin: convergent evolution of coherently scattering dermal collagen arrays. J. Exp. Biol. 207, 2157–2172 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Prum, R. O. & Torres, R. Structural colouration of avian skin: convergent evolution of coherently scattering dermal collagen arrays. J. Exp. Biol. 206, 2409–2429 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Weiner, S., Traub, W. & Wagner, H. D. Lamellar bone: structure–function relations. J. Struct. Biol. 126, 241–255 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Belcher, A. M. et al. Control of crystal phase switching and orientation by soluble mollusc-shell proteins. Nature 381, 56–58 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Aizenberg, J. et al. Skeleton of Euplectella sp.: structural hierarchy from the nanoscale to the macroscale. Science 309, 275–278 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Capitol, R. M., Azevedo, H. S., Velichko, Y. S., Mata, A. & Stupp, S. I. Self-assembly of large and small molecules into hierarchically ordered sacs and membranes. Science 319, 1812–1816 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Zhang, S. Fabrication of novel biomaterials through molecular self-assembly. Nature Biotechnol. 21, 1171–1178 (2003)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Bawden, F. C., Pirie, N. W., Bernal, J. D. & Fankuchen, I. Liquid crystalline substances from virus-infected plants. Nature 138, 1051–1052 (1936)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Dogic, Z. & Fraden, S. Smectic phase in a colloidal suspension of semiflexible virus particles. Phys. Rev. Lett. 78, 2417–2420 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Dogic, Z. & Fraden, S. Cholesteric phase in virus suspensions. Langmuir 16, 7820–7824 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Lee, S. W., Wood, B. M. & Belcher, A. M. Chiral smectic C structures of virus-based films. Langmuir 19, 1592–1598 (2003)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Douglas, T. & Young, M. Host–guest encapsulation of materials by assembled virus protein cages. Nature 393, 152–155 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Lee, S. W., Mao, C. B., Flynn, C. E. & Belcher, A. M. Ordering of quantum dots using genetically engineered viruses. Science 296, 892–895 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Nam, K. T. et al. Virus-enabled synthesis and assembly of nanowires for lithium ion battery electrodes. Science 312, 885–888 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Merzlyak, A., Indrakanti, S. & Lee, S.-W. Genetically engineered nanofiber-like viruses for tissue regenerating materials. Nano Lett. 9, 846–852 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Wu, L. et al. Electrospinning fabrication, structural and mechanical characterization of rod-like virus-based composite nanofibers. J. Mater. Chem. 21, 8550–8557 (2011)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Smalyukh, I. I., Zribi, O. V., Butler, J. C., Lavrentovich, O. D. & Wong, G. C. L. Structure and dynamics of liquid crystalline pattern formation in drying droplets of DNA. Phys. Rev. Lett. 96, 177801 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    De Gennes, P. G. & Prost, J. The Physics of Liquid Crystals (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Smalyukh, I. I., Lansac, Y., Clark, N. A. & Trivedi, R. P. Three-dimensional structure and multistable optical switching of triple-twisted particle-like excitations in anisotropic fluids. Nature Mater. 9, 139–145 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Leforestier, A. & Livolant, F. Cholesteric liquid crystalline DNA; a comparative analysis of cryofixation methods. Biol. Cell 71, 115–122 (1991)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Giraud, M. M., Castanet, J., Meunier, F. J. & Bouligand, Y. The fibrous structure of coelacanth scales: a twisted ‘plywood’. Tissue Cell 10, 671–686 (1978)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Sharma, V., Crne, M., Park, J. O. & Srinivasarao, M. Structural origin of circularly polarized iridescence in jeweled beetles. Science 325, 449–451 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Tamaoki, N. Cholesteric liquid crystals for color information technology. Adv. Mater. 13, 1135–1147 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Ruoslahti, E. & Pierschbacher, M. D. Arg-Gly-Asp: a versatile cell recognition signal. Cell 44, 517–518 (1986)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Denhardt, D. T. & Guo, X. Osteopontin: a protein with diverse functions. FASEB J. 7, 1475–1482 (1993)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    He, T., Abbineni, G., Cao, B. & Mao, C. Nanofibrous bio-inorganic hybrid structures formed through self-assembly and oriented mineralization of genetically engineered phage nanofibers. Small 6, 2230–2235 (2010)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Lanfer, B. et al. The growth and differentiation of mesenchymal stem and progenitor cells cultured on aligned collagen matrices. Biomaterials 30, 5950–5958 (2009)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Yang, F., Murugan, R., Wang, S. & Ramakrishna, S. Electrospinning of nano/micro scale poly(l-lactic acid) aligned fibers and their potential in neural tissue engineering. Biomaterials 26, 2603–2610 (2005)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award (DMR-0747713), the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) of the National Science Foundation (grant no. EEC-0832819), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (R21DE018360), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program on Tip-Based Nanofabrication (TBN), start-up funds from the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, the Laboratory Directed Research and Development fund from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Korea Research Foundation Grant (to W.J.C.) funded by the Korean government (MOEHRD) (KRF-2006-352-D00048).

Author information




W.J.C. and S.W.L. designed the project. W.J.C. developed and optimized the phage assembly method. W.J.C., J.W.O., K.K., B.Y.L., J.M., A.H. and S.W.L. performed optical characterization and analysis. W.J.C. performed the tissue culture and biomineralization experiment. W.J.C., B.Y.L. and E.W. performed mechanical property measurement and analysed the data. J.M. programmed the pulling software. W.J.C., E.W. and S.W.L. wrote the manuscript and coordinated contributions by other authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Seung-Wuk Lee.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods and Data, which include a table and figures A- E with legends, Supplementary Figures 1 -16, a legend for Supplementary Movie 1 and Supplementary References. (PDF 3975 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

This movie shows the self-templating film deposition process as a gold-coated silicon substrate is pulled out of a 1 mg/mL phage suspension (see Supplementary Information file for full legend). (MOV 24278 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Chung, WJ., Oh, JW., Kwak, K. et al. Biomimetic self-templating supramolecular structures. Nature 478, 364–368 (2011).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing