The mechanical properties of soft connective tissues are governed by their collagen fiber network and surrounding non-fibrillar matrix (e.g., proteoglycans, cells, elastin, etc.). In order to understand how healthy tissues function, and how properties change in injury and disease, it is necessary to quantify the mechanical response of both the collagen network and the non-fibrillar matrix (NFM), as well as the nature of the interaction between these tissue constituents. Using collagen-agarose co-gels as a simple experimental tissue analog system, we have demonstrated how NFM contributes to the mechanical and organizational properties of soft tissues in indentation and tension [1–2]. Furthermore, we used a network-based microscale model to examine how specific NFM properties alter the response of fiber-matrix composites under load [3]. This model fit our experimental data well and provided insight into the role of NFM in tensile mechanics. Since it was constructed according to the conventional approach of superposition of the two constituents (collagen network and NFM), however, the model could not specifically examine local interactions between collagen fibers and the surrounding NFM, which could be critical in assessing tissue damage or cell-matrix interactions. Therefore, we developed and evaluated a fiber-matrix modeling scheme to characterize the microstructural interactions between tissue constituents, as well as to quantify the role of individual tissue components in the behavior of soft tissues under tensile load. For validation, the new model (‘coupled’) was compared to our previous model (‘parallel’) and to experimental co-gel data.

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