The new analysis reveals an important mechanism that had never been observed before: Adding even small amounts of water to, or removing water from, collagen in tendons can generate surprisingly
strong forces, as much as 300 times stronger than the forces generated by muscles. The findings are reported in the journal Nature Communications by researchers at MIT and the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Germany.
"We don't really know the physiological role of water" in the human body's collagen-based tissues, explains Professor Markus Buehler,. "Here we show that it can develop significant forces, especially in tendons, which are thought of as a passive material."
One of the challenges in previous studies has been that natural biological samples are all different, Buehler says—so trying to determine the underlying causes of variability is tricky. In the new work, the team was able to study the same samples under a variety of conditions, enabling them to probe the causes of variations.
The pull of that contraction is startlingly large: The force the drying process exerts "is almost three orders of magnitude greater than the forces generated by muscles," Chang says. It remains to be understood what, if any, role those forces play in normal biological functioning.
Whatever the function of this process in the body, it could potentially be harnessed through tissue engineering and used for other purposes, Buehler says: "We could use water as a driver, as one of
the variables to control the material." Previously, he adds, "We would not worry about the amount of water in the material." But now it's possible to envision, for example, "a self-assembling system where water is regulating the process.”
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