Exploring molecular and mechanical gradients in structural bioscaffolds

Biochemistry. 2004 Jun 22;43(24):7653-62. doi: 10.1021/bi049380h.


Most organisms consist of a functionally adaptive assemblage of hard and soft tissues. Despite the obvious advantages of reinforcing soft protoplasm with a hard scaffold, such composites can lead to tremendous mechanical stresses where the two meet. Although little is known about how nature relieves these stresses, it is generally agreed that fundamental insights about molecular adaptation at hard/soft interfaces could profoundly influence how we think about biomaterials. Based on two noncellular tissues, mussel byssus and polychaete jaws, recent studies suggest that one natural strategy to minimize interfacial stresses between adjoining stiff and soft tissue appears to be the creation of a "fuzzy" boundary, which avoids abrupt changes in mechanical properties. Instead there is a gradual mechanical change that accompanies the transcendence from stiff to soft and vice versa. In byssal threads, the biochemical medium for achieving such a gradual mechanical change involves the elegant use of collagen-based self-assembling block copolymers. There are three distinct diblock copolymer types in which one block is always collagenous, whereas the other can be either elastin-like (soft), amorphous polyglycine (intermediate), or silk-like (stiff). Gradients of these are made by an incrementally titrated expression of the three proteins in secretory cells the titration phenotype of which is linked to their location. Thus, reflecting exactly the composition of each thread, the distal cells secrete primarily the silk- and polyglycine-collagen diblocks, whereas the proximal cells secrete the elastin- and polyglycine-collagen diblocks. Those cells in between exhibit gradations of collagens with silk or elastin blocks. Spontaneous self-assembly appears to be by pH triggered metal binding by histidine (HIS)-rich sequences at both the amino and carboxy termini of the diblocks. In the polychaete jaws, HIS-rich sequences are expanded into a major block domain. Histidine predominates at over 20 mol % near the distal tip and diminishes to about 5 mol % near the proximal base. The abundance of histidine is directly correlated to transition metal content (Zn or Cu) as well as hardness determined by nanoindentation. EXAFS analyses of the jaws indicate that transition metals such as Zn are directly bound to histidine ligands and may serve as cross-linkers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biopolymers / chemistry*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Molecular Structure


  • Biopolymers