The mutable collagenous tissue (MCT) of echinoderms (e.g. sea cucumbers, starfish and sea urchins) is unique because of its ability to ‘switch’ mechanical states rapidly and reversibly – from stiff to soft and vice versa. This kind of tissue in humans, for example, in skin, tendons and ligaments, does not have this property. So what are the molecular-level secrets by which MCT achieves this transformative ability? New real-time ultrastructural investigations are beginning to shed light on this question. Synchrotron X-ray measurements of dynamic molecular conformational changes point to the key factor being the gel-like matrix between the collagen fibrils. These findings could have applications for developing treatments for collagen-based disorders.

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