The Multiscale Biomechanics and Mechanochemistry of the Extracellular Matrix Protein Fibres: Collagen & Elastin
Edginton, Ryan Stuart
Date: 29 June 2018
University of Exeter
PhD in Physics
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom and, together with elastin, forms extensive fibrous networks that constitute the primary structure of the mammalian extracellular matrix, respectively endowing it with the tensile and elastic properties that fulfil its principal role as the passive framework of the body. The ...
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom and, together with elastin, forms extensive fibrous networks that constitute the primary structure of the mammalian extracellular matrix, respectively endowing it with the tensile and elastic properties that fulfil its principal role as the passive framework of the body. The fibrous proteins are distinctly hierarchically organised from the molecular scale upwards; for example, the nanoscale tropocollagen monomer assembles in arrays that form the micrometer scale microfibrils and fibrils, and thence into collections of millimetre scale collagen fibres, that in-turn, constitute functional tissues such as skin, tendon and bone. Much is known about the structure at each of these individual scales – collagen being the most extensively researched – and the macromechanics of the fibres are well established. However, far less is known about the micromechanics of these proteins, in particular how the monomers influence the functional mechanics of the macroscopic fibres. In this thesis, I explore the multiscale mechanics of collagen and elastin fibres over a range of hydrations – with fibres in direct contact with aqueous solution, and progressively dehydrated in humidity-controlled environments. I use quasi-static tensile testing to probe the macroscopic mechanical response (Young’s modulus and stress relaxation) of the fibres, and employ Brillouin and Raman microscopy to assess the longitudinal modulus in the GHz range and corresponding molecular properties of the proteins. Brillouin microscopy is an emerging technique in the biomedical field. It enables the all-optical, contact-free and non-destructive testing of tissue micromechanics through detection of frequency shifted light scattered off thermally excited acoustic waves or “phonons” in the GHz range. As one of the first studies of Brillouin light scattering in these fibres, it sets the basis for further investigation of tissue biomechanics. In particular, I provide the full description of the protein fibre micromechanics by performing angular measurements using a so-called platelet-like configuration with sample mounted onto a reflective substrate at 45° angle to the excitation beam. I derive the high-frequency longitudinal modulus, and discuss the results in comparison to the Young’s modulus, in terms of the different frequency and spatial scale of the measurements. I obtained a full description of elasticity using Brillouin spectroscopy applied to dried fibres; however, obtaining the same description in hydrated fibres is a challenge, as the Brillouin spectrum is dominated by water. An assessment of the mechanical differences between type-I and type-II collagens is also given here. Water is known to be a primary determinant of tissue biomechanics, and I identified for the first time, the critical hydration ranges between 100 and 85% relative humidity (RH) for collagen, and around 85% RH for elastin, at which point each macroscopic fibre switched from viscoelastic to plastic-like behaviour. Dehydration below these critical points was shown to severely diminish collagen fibrillar sliding, and completely rob elastin of its ability to reversibly deform under strain. The Young’s modulus increased markedly below these hydrations, and I observed a parallel increase in the longitudinal modulus at high frequencies in each protein, indicating a concomitant increase in stiffness at the two scales. The major difference observed between the two fibrous proteins is that, in the case of elastin, I observe a two-fold increase in the longitudinal modulus as the hydration is decreased from 100 to 21% RH, whilst the Young’s modulus increases by two orders of magnitude. This discrepancy was not observed in collagen, which confirmed that the protein maintained its long-range order in the form of the triple helix at all hydrations employed in this work, whilst the elastin ultrastructure experiences a liquid-to-solid state change at a critical hydration. I demonstrate through the analysis of the low-wavenumber region (<500 cm-1) of the Raman spectrum, that the increase in molecular stiffness of both proteins, is reflected in an increase in torsional rigidity of the peptide backbone upon dehydration. Moreover in collagen, I observe a reduction in the number of inter-protein water bridges, which I propose causes a collapse of the lateral spacing between monomers and an increase in direct backbone-backbone hydrogen bonding, that further stiffens the fibre. Small strain induced reorientations of the amide III and C–C stretching modes in dehydrated collagen fibres suggest that macroscopic stresses may be transferred to the triple helix, otherwise left unperturbed in the hydrated state. I postulate that this is a result of the degraded intra- and interfibrillar sliding mechanism below the critical hydration. Hence in its dehydrated state, the collagen whole-fibre mechanics are similar to those at the molecular scale. The role of proteoglycans and glycosaminoglycans and their potential connection to hydration, is also discussed. In agreement with previous work, I found no Raman spectral changes as a result of stretching hydrated elastin fibres, indicating that even large strains e.g. 80%, have no significant effect on the structural scale probed by Raman microscopy, nor in the air-dried state where the brittle fibres break at low strains. I suggest this may imply a limited sensitivity of Raman bands to these changes, possibly an indication of elastin’s dynamic ultrastructure, or that stress is dissipated at a higher level of the fibre structure. On the macroscopic scale, it is the poroelastic nature of elastin which controls the stress relaxation under strain, and the elastic recovery is mediated by an interplay of hydrophobic interactions and hydration forces.
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