The Role of Collagen
Collagen is one of the most common types of protein in the human body. Collagen proteins are the key structural components of tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, arteries, bone and various other tissue types. As a group, collagen fibers make tissue flexibility possible, according to the text, "Molecular Cell Biology, fourth edition." Yet, the specific function of each fiber is ultimately determined by its structure and organization, which means the role of collagen varies among individual types of tissues.
The basic structural unit of collagen-rich tissues is the collagen fibril. An individual fibril can measure anywhere from 50 to several hundred nanometers across, depending on the specific function of the tissue being formed, according to "Collagen: Structure and Mechanics." Many fibrils are grouped together to form a thick column of strands, called a collagen fiber. Fibers are then assembled into intricate patterns to form tissues such as tendons, skin or bones.
Collagen fibers are extremely versatile building materials because they can assume very different functions simply based on their arrangement. Each fiber is meticulously aligned and linked with surrounding fibers within the tissue. Varying the layout of these fibers changes the strength and elasticity of the collagen-rich tissue. For example, when collagen fibers are aligned in the same direction, they form a strong, stiff tissue that is resistant to outside forces. Organized perpendicularly, the fibers take on a more elastic nature, says "Collagen: Structure and Mechanics."
Tendons and Ligaments
Tendons and ligaments transmit force between muscle and bone. To accomplish this, these tissues must be able to store energy, transfer force and withstand resistance. Collagen fibers give tendons and ligaments the stiffness and resistance they need to absorb and transmit these forces successfully. A linear alignment of fibers along the direction of stress allows collagen to accomplish this task, accordign to "Essential Cell Biology: An Introduction to the Molecular Biology of the Cell."
Skin and Arteries
The walls of skin cells and arteries need to be elastic and flexible, yet arteries must also be able to withstand the constant force of blood pressure. Additionally, it is necessary for skin to resist tension from multiple directions simultaneously. To fulfill this need, the collagen fibers of skin assume a woven design as they are layered in alternating directions. In contrast, the parallel alignment and relative density of collagen fibers, along with the addition of elastin, another structural protein, and smooth muscle cells, cause arterial tissue to be highly flexible and resilient in response to the force of blood pressure.
The way collagen fibers are arranged within bone tissue is unique, especially when compared with the organization of tissues such as skin and tendons. In order to support the strength needs of the skeleton, bone tissue must be extremely strong and significantly less elastic than any other tissue in the body. Collagen fibers are arranged linearly, similar to the connective tissue of tendons, since both tissues must be able to withstand a significant amount of force. Unlike tendons however, this parallel structure also includes mineral particles woven into the framework. Minerals actually monopolize nearly half the volume of compact bone, increasing the strength and durability of bone tissue.
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