New generations of synthetic biomaterials are being developed at a rapid pace for use as three-dimensional extracellular microenvironments to mimic the regulatory characteristics of natural extracellular matrices (ECMs) and ECM-bound growth factors, both for therapeutic applications and basic biological studies. Recent advances include nanofibrillar networks formed by self-assembly of small building blocks, artificial ECM networks from protein polymers or peptide-conjugated synthetic polymers that present bioactive ligands and respond to cell-secreted signals to enable proteolytic remodeling. These materials have already found application in differentiating stem cells into neurons, repairing bone and inducing angiogenesis. Although modern synthetic biomaterials represent oversimplified mimics of natural ECMs lacking the essential natural temporal and spatial complexity, a growing symbiosis of materials engineering and cell biology may ultimately result in synthetic materials that contain the necessary signals to recapitulate developmental processes in tissue– and organ-specific differentiation and morphogenesis.
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