, Volume 258, Issue 3, pp 527-539

Collagen and proteoglycan in a sea urchin ligament with mutable mechanical properties

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Summary

The “problematic ligament” of sea urchins is a connective tissue which crosses the ball-and-socket joint between spine and body wall. The problem of this ligament is that it is composed of parallel collagen fibrils, yet normally undergoes rapid and dramatic alterations in mechanical properties and in length. Previous work has suggested that the collagen fibrils of the ligament are able to slide past one another during length changes but are inhibited from sliding when the ligament is in “catch”. In this model of the ligament both the collagen fibrils and the interfibrillar matrix are mechanically important. We have found that the collagen fibrils of the spine ligament of the pencil urchin Eucidaris tribuloides are discontinuous and end by tapering within the body of the ligament. Intact fibrils that have been isolated from the ligament vary by more than an order of magnitude in length and in radius but have a constant length/radius (aspect) ratio of about 5300. This is the first determination of the aspect ratio of collagen fibrils from any source. The constant aspect ratio of the fibrils is consistent with their functioning as the discontinuous fiber phase in a fiber-reinforced composite material, while the high value of the aspect ratio indicates that the nonfibrillar matrix, which must act to transfer stress between fibrils, can produce a stiff and strong ligament even if it is several orders of magnitude weaker and more compliant than the fibrils. Moreover, the tensile properties of the ligament may be determined by the properties of the matrix. A prominent component of the interfibrillar matrix is a proteoglycan which associates with specific bands at the surface of the collagen fibrils through noncovalent binding of its core protein. The glycosaminoglycan moiety of this proteoglycan is partly comprised of chondroitin sulfate/dermatan sulfate polymers. These results are consistent with the “sliding fibril” hypothesis and suggest that the proteoglycan may be an important component of the stress-transfer matrix.