Reconstituted hydrogels based on the self-assembly of acid-solubilized collagen molecules have been extensively used as in vitro models and precursors in biofabrication processes. This study investigated the effect of fibrillization pH—ranging from 4 to 11—on real-time rheological property changes during the gelation of collagen hydrogels and its interplay with the properties of subsequently biofabricated dense collagen matrices generated via automated gel aspiration-ejection (GAE). A contactless, nondestructive technique was used to characterize the temporal progression in shear storage modulus (G’, or stiffness) during collagen gelation. There was a relative increase in G′ of the hydrogels from 36 to 900 Pa with an increase in gelation pH. Automated GAE, which simultaneously imparts collagen fibrillar compaction and alignment, was then applied to these precursor collagen hydrogels to biofabricate native extracellular matrix-like densified gels. In line with viscoelastic properties, only hydrogels fibrillized in the 6.5 < pH ≤ 10 range could be densified via GAE. There was an increase in both fibrillar density and alignment in the GAE-derived matrices with an increase in gelation pH. These factors, combined with a higher G′ in the alkaline precursor hydrogels, led to a significant increase in the micro-compressive modulus of GAE-densified gels of pH 9 and 10. Furthermore, NIH/3T3 fibroblast-seeded GAE-derived matrices densified from gels fibrillized in the pH range of 7 to 10 exhibited low cell mortality with >80% viability. It is anticipated that the results of this study can be potentially applicable to other hydrogel systems, as well as biofabrication techniques involving needles or nozzles, such as injection and bioprinting.
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