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J Theor Biol. 2008 Aug 7;253(3):434-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.03.010. Epub 2008 Mar 16.

Modelling polymer interactions of the 'molecular Velcro' type in wood under mechanical stress.

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WestChem, Glasgow University, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK.


Trees withstand wind and snow loads by synthesising wood that varies greatly in mechanical properties: flexible in twigs and in the stem of the sapling, and rigid in the outer part of the mature stem. The 'molecular Velcro' model of Keckes et al. [2003. Cell-wall recovery after irreversible deformation of wood. Nat. Mater. 2, 810-814] permits the simulation of the tensile properties of water-saturated wood as found in living trees. A basic feature of this model is the presence of non-covalent interactions between hemicellulose chains attached to adjacent cellulose microfibrils, which are disrupted above a threshold level of interfibrillar shear. However, other evidence does not confirm the importance of hemicellulose-hemicellulose association in the cohesion of the interfibrillar matrix. Here, we present an alternative model in which hemicellulose chains bridging continuously from one microfibril aggregate (macrofibril) to the next provide most of the cohesion. We show that such hemicellulose bridges exist and that the stripping of the bridging chains from the cellulose surfaces under the tensile stress component normal to the macrofibrils can provide an alternative triggering mechanism for shear deformation between one macrofibril and the next. When one macrofibril then slides past another, a domain of the wood cell wall can extend but simultaneously it twists until the spacing between macrofibrils is reduced again and contact through hemicelluloses bridges is restored. Overall deformation therefore takes place through a series of local stick-slip events involving temporary twisting of small domains within the wood cell wall. Modelled load-deformation curves for this modified 'molecular Velcro' model are similar, although not identical, to those for the original model. However, the mechanism is different and more consistent with current views of the structure of wood cell walls, providing a framework within which the developmental control of rigidity in wood synthesised in different parts of a tree may be considered.

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