Metal coordination bonds are widely used as the dynamic cross-linkers to construct self-healing hydrogels. However, it remains challenging to independently improve the toughness of metal coordinated hydrogels without affecting the stretchability and self-healing properties, as all these features are directly correlated with the dynamic properties of the same metal coordination bonds. In this work, using histidine–Zn2+
binding as an example, we show that the coordination number (the number of binding sites in each cross-linking ligand) is an important parameter for the mechanical strength of the hydrogels. By increasing the coordination number of the binding site, the mechanical strength of the hydrogels can be greatly improved without sacrificing the stretchability and self-healing properties. By adjusting the peptide and Zn2+
concentrations, the hydrogels can achieve a set of demanding mechanical features, including the Young’s modulus of 7–123 kPa, fracture strain of 434–781%, toughness of 630–1350 kJ m−3
, and self-healing time of ~1 h. We anticipate the engineered hydrogels can find broad applications in a variety of biomedical fields. Moreover, the concept of improving the mechanical strength of metal coordinated hydrogels by tuning the coordination number may inspire the design of other dynamically cross-linked hydrogels with further improved mechanical performance.
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