We used hydrogen-bonded multilayers of poly(N-vinylpyrrolidone) (PVPON) and poly(methacrylic acid) (PMAA) as precursors for producing surface-bound hydrogels and studied their pH-dependent swelling and protein uptake behavior using in situ attenuated total reflection Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and in situ ellipsometry. The hydrogels were produced by selective chemical cross-linking between PMAA units using carbodiimide chemistry and ethylenediamine (EDA) as a cross-linking reagent, followed by complete removal of PVPON from the film obtained by exposing the film to pH 7.5. As shown by in situ ellipsometry, hydrogels exhibit distinctive polyampholytic swelling as a function of pH, with minimum swelling at pH 4.2-5.7, and increased film thickness at both lower and higher pH values. Film swelling at lower pH values occurs as a result of the presence of amino groups within the hydrogels, which originate from the one-end attachment of the EDA cross-linker to PMAA chains. The pH-switching of hydrogel swelling was fast and reversible. The degree of hydrogel swelling could be also controlled by varying the time allowed for cross-linking. The produced hydrogels were able to absorb large amounts of dyes and proteins of opposite charge reversibly, in response to pH variations. Finally, we demonstrate that proteins included within the hydrogel can easily be replaced with linear polycations. These surface hydrogels hold promise for bioseparation and controlled delivery applications. © 2007 American Chemical Society.