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Keywords:

  • collagen fibril;
  • mechanical overload;
  • discrete plasticity;
  • tendon strain;
  • molecular denaturation

Abstract

A critical feature of tendons and ligaments is their ability to resist rupture when overloaded, resulting in strains or sprains instead of ruptures. To treat these injuries more effectively, it is necessary to understand how overload affects the primary load-bearing elements of these tissues: collagen fibrils. We have investigated how repeated subrupture overload alters the collagen of tendons at the nanoscale. Using scanning electron microscopy to examine fibril morphology and hydrothermal isometric tension testing to look at molecular stability, we demonstrated that tendon collagen undergoes a progressive cascade of discrete plasticity damage when repeatedly overloaded. With successive overload cycles, fibrils develop an increasing number of kinks along their length. These kinks—discrete zones of plastic deformation known to contain denatured collagen molecules—are accompanied by a progressive and eventual total loss of D-banding along the surface of fibrils, indicating a loss of native molecular packing and further molecular denaturation. Thermal analysis of molecular stability showed that the destabilization of collagen molecules within fibrils is strongly related to the amount of strain energy dissipated by the tendon after yielding during tensile overload. These novel findings raise new questions about load transmission within tendons and their fibrils and about the interplay between crosslinking, strain-energy dissipation ability, and molecular denaturation within these structures. © 2012 Orthopaedic Research Society. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Orthop Res 31: 731–737, 2013