Tension-suppressed degradation of collagen controls tissue stiffness scaling with fibrillar collagen

Extremely soft tissues such as developing hearts or adult brain contain far less collagen than highly stiff adult tissues such as tendons, but cell and molecular mechanisms for such homeostatic differences remain unclear. We hypothesized that cell-generated or exogenous forces combine with tension-suppressed collagen degradation in order to sculpt extracellular matrix (ECM) collagen levels in tissues. For various mature mice tissues and beating embryonic chick hearts, we find collagen-sensitive second harmonic generation (SHG) image intensity scales non-linearly versus tissue stiffness, aligning well with the results from cellularized gels of collagen. Chick hearts beating at ∼5% strain maintain collagen levels until their contractile strain is suppressed by myosin-II inhibition and endogenous matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) then degrade collagens within ∼30-60 minutes – based on SHG and mass spectrometry proteomics. Although tendons composed of oriented collagen fibrils exhibit heterogeneous strain distributions upon deformation, the addition of exogenous MMP or bacterial collagenase suppresses collagen degradation for strains within physiological limits (i.e., up to ∼5-8%). Sequestration of collagen cleavage sites by tissue strain is a likely mechanism because molecular permeation and mobility prove strain-independent whereas artificial collagen cross-links accelerate strain-dependent collagen degradation via collagen molecular unfolding. Tension-suppressed degradation of collagen thus underlies tissue stiffness scaling.