Royal Society Publishing

A Comparison of the Size Distribution of Collagen Fibrils in Connective Tissues as a Function of Age and a Possible Relation between Fibril Size Distribution and Mechanical Properties

D. A. D. Parry, G. R. G. Barnes, A. S. Craig


Data on the distribution of collagen fibril diameters in various connective tissues have been collected and analysed for common features. The diameter distributions of the collagen fibrils at birth and in the foetal stages of development are unimodal, whereas at maturity the mass-average diameter of the collagen fibrils is generally larger than at birth and the distributions of fibril sizes may be either unimodal or bimodal depending on the tissue. At senescence, few data are available but in most instances both the mean and mass-average diameters of the collagen fibrils are smaller than those at maturity and the fibril distributions are mainly bimodal. The division between tissues showing unimodal or bimodal fibril distributions at maturity does not simply relate to the type I collagen/type II collagen classification, to the distinction between orientated and unorientated material or indeed directly to the levels of stress and strain encountered by the tissue. However, there may prove to be a relation between a bimodal fibril diameter distribution at maturity and the maintenance over long periods of time of either high stress in stretched tissues or low stress in compressed tissues. It has also been noted that the width of the collagen fibril diameter distribution at birth differs between altricious and precocious animals. The ultimate tensile strength of a connective tissue and the mass-average diameter of the constituent collagen fibrils have been shown to have a positive correlation. Further, the form of the collagen fibril diameter distribution can be directly related to the mechanical properties of the tissue. In particular, it is postulated that the size distribution of the collagen fibrils is largely determined by two factors. First, if the tissue is primarily designed to have high tensile strength, then an increase in the diameter of the collagen fibrils will parallel an increase in the potential density of intrafibrillar covalent crosslinks. Consequently large collagen fibrils are predicted to have a greater tensile strength than small fibrils. Secondly, if the tissue is designed to be elastic and hence withstand creep, then a reduction in the diameter of the collagen fibrils will effectively increase the surface area per unit mass of the fibrils thus enhancing the probability of interfibrillar non-covalent crosslinks between the collagen fibrils and the components of the matrix. The idealized description given may indicate how the mechanical properties of a tissue may be interpreted in terms of the collagen fibril diameter distribution.

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