Connective tissue mechanical behavior is primarily determined by the composition and organization of collagen. In ligaments and tendons, type I collagen is the principal structural element of the extracellular matrix, which acts to transmit force between bones or bone and muscle, respectively. Therefore, characterization of collagen fibril morphology and organization in fetal and skeletally mature animals is essential to understanding how tissues develop and obtain their mechanical attributes. In this study, tendons and ligaments from fetal rat, bovine, and feline, and mature rat were examined with scanning electron microscopy. At early fetal developmental stages, collagen fibrils show fibril overlap and interweaving, apparent fibril ends, and numerous bifurcating/fusing fibrils. Late in fetal development, collagen fibril ends are still present and fibril bundles (fibers) are clearly visible. Examination of collagen fibrils from skeletally mature tissues, reveals highly organized regions but still include fibril interweaving, and regions that are more randomly organized. Fibril bifurcations/fusions are still present in mature tissues but are less numerous than in fetal tissue. To address the continuity of fibrils in mature tissues, fibrils were examined in individual micrographs and consecutive overlaid micrographs. Extensive microscopic analysis of mature tendons and ligaments detected no fibril ends. These data strongly suggest that fibrils in mature ligament and tendon are either continuous or functionally continuous. Based upon this information and published data, we conclude that force within these tissues is directly transferred through collagen fibrils and not through an interfibrillar coupling, such as a proteoglycan bridge. © 2005 Elsevier B.V./International Society of Matrix Biology. All rights reserved.
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