Stem cells are known to differentiate in response to the chemical and mechanical properties of the substrates on which they are cultured. Thus, supramolecular biomaterials with tunable properties are well suited for the study of stem cell differentiation. In this report, we exploited this phenomenon by combining stem cell differentiation in hydrogels with variable stiffness and metabolomics analysis to identify specific bioactive lipids that are uniquely used up during differentiation. To achieve this, we cultured perivascular stem cells on supramolecular peptide gels of different stiffness, and metabolite depletion followed. On soft (1 kPa), stiff (13 kPa), and rigid (32 kPa) gels, we observed neuronal, chondrogenic, and osteogenic differentiation, respectively, showing that these stem cells undergo stiffness-directed fate selection. By analyzing concentration variances of >600 metabolites during differentiation on the stiff and rigid gels (and focusing on chondrogenesis and osteogenesis as regenerative targets, respectively), we identified that specific lipids (lysophosphatidic acid and cholesterol sulfate, respectively), were significantly depleted. We propose that these metabolites are therefore involved in the differentiation process. In order to unequivocally demonstrate that the lipid metabolites that we identified play key roles in driving differentiation, we subsequently demonstrated that these individual lipids can, when fed to standard stem cell cultures, induce differentiation toward chondrocyte and osteoblast phenotypes. Our concept exploits the design of supramolecular biomaterials as a strategy for discovering cell-directing bioactive metabolites of therapeutic relevance.
- stem cells