Collagen self-assembly and the development of tendon mechanical properties

J Biomech. 2003 Oct;36(10):1529-53. doi: 10.1016/s0021-9290(03)00135-0.


The development of the musculoskeleton and the ability to locomote requires controlled cell division as well as spatial control over deposition of extracellular matrix. Self-assembly of procollagen and its final processing into collagen fibrils occurs extracellularly. The formation of crosslinked collagen fibers results in the conversion of weak liquid-like embryonic tissues to tough elastic solids that can store energy and do work. Collagen fibers in the form of fascicles are the major structural units found in tendon. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on collagen self-assembly and tendon development and to relate this information to the development of elastic energy storage in non-mineralizing and mineralizing tendons. Of particular interest is the mechanism by which energy is stored in tendons during locomotion. In vivo, collagen self-assembly occurs by the deposition of thin fibrils in recesses within the cell membrane. These thin fibrils later grow in length and width by lateral fusion of intermediates. In vitro, collagen self-assembly occurs by both linear and lateral growth steps with parallel events seen in vivo; however, in the absence of cellular control and enzymatic cleavage of the propeptides, the growth mechanism is altered, and the fibrils are irregular in cross section. Results of mechanical studies suggest that prior to locomotion the mechanical response of tendon to loading is dominated by the viscous sliding of collagen fibrils. In contrast, after birth when locomotion begins, the mechanical response is dominated by elastic stretching of crosslinked collagen molecules.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Collagen / metabolism
  • Collagen / physiology*
  • Collagen / ultrastructure
  • Elasticity
  • Humans
  • Proteoglycans / physiology
  • Tendons / chemistry
  • Tendons / growth & development
  • Tendons / physiology*


  • Proteoglycans
  • Collagen