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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 May 8;104(19):7899-903. Epub 2007 Apr 30.

Shear-induced unfolding triggers adhesion of von Willebrand factor fibers.

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Department of Dermatology, University of Münster, Von-Esmarch-Strasse 58, 48149 Münster, Germany.


von Willebrand factor (VWF), a protein present in our circulatory system, is necessary to stop bleeding under high shear-stress conditions as found in small blood vessels. The results presented here help unravel how an increase in hydrodynamic shear stress activates VWF's adhesion potential, leading to the counterintuitive phenomena of enhanced adsorption rate under strong shear conditions. Using a microfluidic device, we were able to mimic a wide range of bloodflow conditions and directly visualize the conformational dynamics of this protein under shear flow. In particular, we find that VWF displays a reversible globule-stretch transition at a critical shear rate gamma(crit) in the absence of any adsorbing surface. Computer simulations reproduce this sharp transition and identify the large size of VWF's repeating units as one of the keys for this unique hydrodynamic activation. In the presence of an adsorbing collagen substrate, we find a large increase in the protein adsorption at the same critical shear rate, suggesting that the globule unfolding in bulk triggers the surface adsorption in the case of a collagen substrate, which provides a sufficient density of binding sites. Monitoring the adsorption process of multiple VWF fibers, we were able to follow the formation of an immobilized network that constitutes a "sticky" grid necessary for blood platelet adhesion under high shear flow. Because areas of high shear stress coincide with a higher chance for vessel wall damage by mechanical forces, we identified the shear-induced increase in the binding probability of VWF as an effective self-regulating repair mechanism of our microvascular system.

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