The coacervation of tropoelastin represents the first major stage of elastic fiber assembly. The process has been modeled in vitro by numerous studies, initially with mixtures of solubilized elastin, and subsequently with synthetic elastin peptides that represent hydrophobic repeat units, isolated hydrophobic domains, segments of alternating hydrophobic and cross-linking domains, or the full-length monomer. Tropoelastin coacervation in vitro is characterized by two stages: an initial phase separation, which involves a reversible inverse temperature transition of monomer to n-mer; and maturation, which is defined by the irreversible coalescence of coacervates into large species with fibrillar structures. Coacervation is an intrinsic ability of tropoelastin. It is primarily influenced by the number, sequence, and contextual arrangement of hydrophobic domains, although hydrophilic sequences can also affect the behavior of the hydrophobic domains and thus affect coacervation. External conditions including ionic strength, pH, and temperature also directly influence the propensity of tropoelastin to self-associate. Coacervation is an endothermic, entropically-driven process driven by the cooperative interactions of hydrophobic domains following destabilization of the clathrate-like water shielding these regions. The formation of such assemblies is believed to follow a helical nucleation model of polymerization. Coacervation is closely associated with conformational transitions of the monomer, such as increased β-structures in hydrophobic domains and α-helices in cross-linking domains. Tropoelastin coacervation in vivo is thought to mainly involve the central hydrophobic domains. In addition, cell-surface glycosaminoglycans and microfibrillar proteins may regulate the process. Coacervation is essential for progression to downstream elastogenic stages, and impairment of the process can result in elastin haploinsufficiency disorders such as supravalvular aortic stenosis.
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