Biomacromolecules, Vol.21, No.9, 3631-3643, 2020
Disordered Filaments Mediate the Fibrillogenesis of Type I Collagen in Solution
Collagen type I is one of the major structural proteins in mammals, providing tissues such as cornea, tendon, bone, skin, and dentin with mechanical stability, strength, and toughness. Collagen fibrils are composed of collagen molecules arranged in a quarter-stagger array that gives rise to a periodicity of 67 nm along the fibril axis, with a 30 nm overlap zone and a 37 nm gap zone. The formation of such highly organized fibrils is a self-assembly process where electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions play a critical role in determining the staggering of the molecules with 67 nm periodicity. While collagen self-assembly has been extensively studied, not much is known about the mechanism, and in particular, the nature of the nuclei that initially form, the different stages of the aggregation process, and how the organization of the molecules into fibrils arises. By combining time-resolved cryo-transmission electron microscopy with molecular dynamics simulations, we show that collagen assembly is a multistep process in which the molecules first form filaments which self-organize into fibrils with a disordered structure. The appearance of the D-band periodicity is gradual and starts with the alignment of adjacent filaments at the N-terminal end of the molecules, first leading to bands with a periodicity of 67 nm and then to the formation of gap and overlap regions.