Elastic proteins: biological roles and mechanical properties

J. Gosline , M. Lillie , E. Carrington , P. Guerette , C. Ortlepp , K. Savage

Abstract

The term ‘elastic protein’ applies to many structural proteins with diverse functions and mechanical properties so there is room for confusion about its meaning. Elastic implies the property of elasticity, or the ability to deform reversibly without loss of energy; so elastic proteins should have high resilience. Another meaning for elastic is ‘stretchy’, or the ability to be deformed to large strains with little force. Thus, elastic proteins should have low stiffness. The combination of high resilience, large strains and low stiffness is characteristic of rubber–like proteins (e.g. resilin and elastin) that function in the storage of elastic–strain energy. Other elastic proteins play very different roles and have very different properties. Collagen fibres provide exceptional energy storage capacity but are not very stretchy. Mussel byssus threads and spider dragline silks are also elastic proteins because, in spite of their considerable strength and stiffness, they are remarkably stretchy. The combination of strength and extensibility, together with low resilience, gives these materials an impressive resistance to fracture (i.e. toughness), a property that allows mussels to survive crashing waves and spiders to build exquisite aerial filters. Given this range of properties and functions, it is probable that elastic proteins will provide a wealth of chemical structures and elastic mechanisms that can be exploited in novel structural materials through biotechnology.