Nanomechanics of Type I collagen


Type I collagen is the predominant collagen in mature tendons and ligaments, where it gives them their load-bearing mechanical properties. Fibrils of type I collagen are formed by the packing of polypeptide triple helices. Higher-order structures like fibril bundles and fibers are assembled from fibrils in the presence of other collagenous molecules and noncollagenous molecules. Curiously, however, experiments show that fibrils/fibril bundles are less resistant to axial stress compared to their constituent triple helices—the Young’s moduli of fibrils/fibril bundles are an order-of-magnitude smaller than the Young’s moduli of triple helices. Given the sensitivity of the Young’s moduli of triple helices to solvation environment, a plausible explanation is that the packing of triple helices into fibrils perhaps reduces the Young’s modulus of an individual triple helix, which results in fibrils having smaller Young’s moduli. We find, however, from molecular dynamics and accelerated conformational sampling simulations that the Young’s modulus of the buried core of the fibril is of the same order as that of a triple helix in aqueous phase. These simulations, therefore, suggest that the lower Young’s moduli of fibrils/fibril bundles cannot be attributed to the specific packing of triple helices in the fibril core. It is not the fibril core that yields initially to axial stress. Rather, it must be the portion of the fibril exposed to the solvent and/or the fibril-fibril interface that bears the initial strain. Overall, this work provides estimates of Young’s moduli and persistence lengths at two levels of collagen’s structural assembly, which are necessary to quantitatively investigate the response of various biological factors on collagen mechanics, including congenital mutations, posttranslational modifications and ligand binding, and also engineer new collagen-based materials.

Biophysical journal