Collagen : Your Most Plentiful Protein
About one quarter of all of the protein in your body is collagen. Collagen is a major structural protein, forming molecular cables that strengthen the tendons and vast, resilient sheets that support the skin and internal organs. Bones and teeth are made by adding mineral crystals to collagen. Collagen provides structure to our bodies, protecting and supporting the softer tissues and connecting them with the skeleton. But, in spite of its critical function in the body, collagen is a relatively simple protein.
We make many different kinds of collagen, which form long ropes and tough sheets that are used for structural support in mature animals and as pathways for cellular movement during development. All contain a long stretch of triple helix connected to different types of ends. The simplest is merely a long triple helix, with blunt ends. These “type I” collagen molecules associate side-by-side, like fibers in a rope, to form tough fibrils. These fibrils crisscross the space between nearly every one of our cells.
The second illustration depicts a basement membrane, which forms a tough surface that supports the skin and many organs. A different collagen—“type IV”—forms the structural basis of this membrane. Type IV collagen has a globular head at one end and an extra tail at the other. The heads bind strongly together, head-to-head, and four collagen molecules associate together through their tails, forming an X-shaped complex. Using these two types of interactions, type IV collagen forms an extended network (shown in light blue). Two other molecules—cross-shaped laminin (blue- green) and long, snaky proteoglycans (green)—fill in the spaces, forming a dense sheet.
Photo credit : David Goodsell. 2012