The main features of the triple helical structure of collagen were deduced in the mid-1950s from fibre X-ray diffraction of tendons. Yet, the resulting models only could offer an average description of the molecular conformation. A critical advance came about 20 years later with the chemical synthesis of sufficiently long and homogeneous peptides with collagen-like sequences. The availability of these collagen model peptides resulted in a large number of biochemical, crystallographic and NMR studies that have revolutionized our understanding of collagen structure. High-resolution crystal structures from collagen model peptides have provided a wealth of data on collagen conformational variability, interaction with water, collagen stability or the effects of interruptions. Furthermore, a large increase in the number of structures of collagen model peptides in complex with domains from receptors or collagen-binding proteins has shed light on the mechanisms of collagen recognition. In recent years, collagen biochemistry has escaped the boundaries of natural collagen sequences. Detailed knowledge of collagen structure has opened the field for protein engineers who have used chemical biology approaches to produce hyperstable collagens with unnatural residues, rationally designed collagen heterotrimers, self-assembling collagen peptides, etc. This review summarizes our current understanding of the structure of the collagen triple helical domain (COL×3) and gives an overview of some of the new developments in collagen molecular engineering aiming to produce novel collagen-based materials with superior properties.

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