Biomimetics & Biological Materials

Nature has refined the design of living organisms through years of evolution and natural selection, and as a result we find natural materials with remarkable properties that often exceed their man-made equivalents. Sticky gecko feet, water-repellent plants, coloration in insect wings, high strength spider-web fibers…the list is endless and there is yet much to learn.

I am interested in understanding the underlying nanoscale physics of these amazing materials and adapting the concepts to engineered systems. My research focuses on structural proteins, their self-assembly, and properties at the nano-, micro-, and macroscale.

In particular, my work focuses on Squid Ring Teeth (SRT), which are protein-based serrated structures located in squid species suction cups along the arms and tentacles that are used for prey capture. These teeth are composed of a particular group of structural proteins with a segmented amino acid sequence design that self-assemble into a semicrystalline nanostructure, giving very interesting properties to the material (mechanical strength, adhesion, energy dissipation, etc). By controlling the semicrystalline nanostructure (through sequence design), we can program the properties of these proteins and process them into functional biomimetic devices and materials with the desired performance. 

Further reading:

Research Update: Programmable tandem repeat proteins inspired by squid ring teeth

A Pena-Francesch*, NE Domeradzka*, H Jung, B Barbu, M Vural, Y Kikuchi, BD Allen, MC Demirel (*equal contribution)

Special Topic: From molluscs to materials. APL Materials 6, 010701 (2018) (invited review) 

Molecular tandem repeat strategy for elucidating mechanical properties of high-strength proteins

H Jung*, A Pena-Francesch*, A Saadat, A Sebastian, DH Kim, RF Hamilton, I Albert, BD Allen, MC Demirel (*equal contribution)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (23), 6478–6483 (2016)

Recent Advances in Nanoscale Bioinspired Materials

MC Demirel, M Cetinkaya, A Pena‐Francesch, H Jung
Macromolecular bioscience 15 (3), 300-311 (2015)

Accelerating the design of biomimetic materials by integrating RNA-seq with proteomics and materials science

PA Guerette, S Hoon, Y Seow, M Raida, A Masic, FT Wong, VHB Ho, KW Kong, MC Demirel, A Pena-Francesch, S Amini, GZ Tay, D Ding, A Miserez

Nature biotechnology 31 (10), 908-915 (2013) (cover page)

Multifunctional Smart Materials

Smart materials respond to diverse external stimuli (pH, temperature, humidity, light, electric, and magnetic field) by changing their structure and physicochemical properties.


In my research, I design and develop new synthetic and biological (proteins & polysaccharides) smart materials such as elastomers, hydrogels, and nanocomposites, with programmable and switchable properties.

By carefully designing the synthesis, fabrication, and processing of smart materials, we can control their molecular assembly and their dynamic nanostructure. Therefore, we design and program dynamic properties that are triggered by specific stimulus, such as mechanical, optical, thermal, conducting, degradability, and self-healing properties.

Using these smart materials, we have developed advanced fibers and textiles, surgical adhesives, antibiofouling surfaces for medical devices, biodegradable sensors, soft actuators, and shape-changing microrobots for biomedical applications.

Further reading:

Programmable proton conduction in stretchable and self-healing proteins

A Pena-Francesch, H Jung, M Hickner, M Tyagi, BD Allen, MC Demirel

Chemistry of Materials 30, 3, 898-905 (2018)

Mechanical properties of tandem repeat proteins are governed by network defects

A Pena-Francesch, H Jung, M Segad, RH Colby, BD Allen, MC Demirel

ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering 4 (3), 884-891 (2018)

Self-Healing Textile: Enzyme Encapsulated Layer-by-Layer Structural Proteins

D Gaddes, H Jung, A Pena-Francesch, G Dion, S Tadigadapa, WJ Dressick, MC Demirel
ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces  8 (31), pp 20371–20378 (2016)

Segmented molecular design of self-healing proteinaceous materials

V Sariola*, A Pena-Francesch*, H Jung, M Çetinkaya, C Pacheco, M Sitti, MC Demirel (*equal contribution)
Scientific reports 5 (2015)

Materials Fabrication from Native and Recombinant Thermoplastic Squid Proteins

A Pena‐Francesch*, S Florez*, H Jung, A Sebastian, I Albert, W Curtis, MC Demirel (*equal contribution)
Advanced Functional Materials 24 (47), 7401-7409 (2014) (cover page)

Pressure sensitive adhesion of an elastomeric protein complex extracted from squid ring teeth

A Pena‐Francesch, B Akgun, A Miserez, W Zhu, H Gao, MC Demirel

Advanced Functional Materials 24 (39), 6227-6233 (2014)

Tailoring the LCST of Thermosensitive Hydrogel Thin Films Deposited by iCVD

A Pena-Francesch, L Montero, S Borrós

Langmuir 30 (24), 7162-7167 (2014)

Soft Robotics & Devices

In recent years, the use of micro- and millirobots in biomedical applications has significantly expanded. However, innovative robot-assisted medical procedures such as minimally invasive surgery, in-body treatment, and diagnosis present new challenges in materials design, biocompatibility, and function control. As the sizes of robots and devices are reduced to sub-centimeter scales, they usually lack on-board power, computation and control. Due to size limitations, these elements need to be substituted by control and actuation through materials design. Hence, there is a need for soft, active materials that can adapt and respond to a wide range of external stimuli, and can perform large and complex deformations.


Mechanical properties suitable for interaction with biological tissue, sensitivity to stimuli, and micro-/nanofabrication possibilities are key parameters in the material selection and design of soft robots. In addition, novel soft robots should be biocompatible, biodegradable, able to operate in safe physiological conditions, and capable of incorporating additional functionalities such as drug delivery or self-healing.

My current research targets the design, manufacturing, characterization, and applications of new advanced functional materials (synthetic and biological) for small-scale and soft robotics, including programmable actuators, wearable sensors, self-propelled microrobots, and biodegradable flexible devices.

Further reading:

Multifunctional and biodegradable self-propelled protein motors

A Pena-Francesch, J Giltinan, M Sitti

Nature Communications 10, 3188 (2019)

Structural Protein-Based Whispering Gallery Mode Resonators

H Yilmaz, A Pena-Francesch, R Shreiner, H Jung, Z Belay, MC Demirel, S Ozdemir, L Yang

ACS Photonics 4 (9), 2179-2186 (2017)


Programmable molecular composites of tandem proteins with graphene oxide for efficient bimorph actuators

M Vural, Y Lei, A Pena-Francesch, H Jung, B Allen, M Terrones, MC Demirel
Carbon 118, 404-412 (2017) (cover page)

More coming soon...

Dr. Abdon Pena-Francesch

Research website

© Abdon Pena-Francesch 2019

Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems

Physical Intelligence Department

Heisenbergstr. 3 70569 Stuttgart Germany