Force spectroscopy of collagen fibers to investigate their mechanical properties and structural organization
Tendons are composed of collagen and other molecules in a highly organized hierarchical assembly, leading to extraordinary mechanical properties. To probe the cross-links on the lower level of organization, we used a cantilever to pull substructures out of the assembly. Advanced force probe technology, using small cantilevers (length <20 μm), improved the force resolution into the sub-10 pN range. In the force versus extension curves, we found an exponential increase in force and two different periodic rupture events, one with strong bonds (jumps in force of several hundred pN) with a periodicity of 78 nm and one with weak bonds (jumps in force of <7 pN) with a periodicity of 22 nm. We demonstrate a good correlation between the measured mechanical behavior of collagen fibers and their appearance in the micrographs taken with the atomic force microscope.