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2.6: Intercellular Materials - Properties and Functions

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    Since higher levels in the hierarchy of body structure are composed both of cells and of the materials they secrete, we will now examine the more abundant of these materials. These substances are found between cells and are therefore called intercellular materials. Some intercellular materials are amorphous (i.e., lack organized structure) and contain proteins or carbohydrate/protein complexes dissolved in water; others are fibers. In many body structures, the substances between cells contain a mixture of amorphous materials and fibers.

    Amorphous Materials

    Amorphous materials vary in consistency depending on the amount and types of materials present in the water. For example, the intercellular material in blood (plasma) is a liquid because it contains approximately 90 percent water and its other molecules are not tightly bound together. Other amorphous intercellular materials are soft slippery gels because they contain more protein. Much of this type of material is under the skin. Other amorphous materials, such as that in cartilage, are firm gels containing much mucopolysaccharide. Finally, amorphous materials that contain much mineral, such as in bone, may be hard and rigid.


    Collagen Fibers

    Many fibers in intercellular materials are made of a protein called collagen, the most abundant protein in the body. The molecules in a collagen fiber are aligned parallel to each other and are twisted and bound together. The resulting fiber is thick, flexible, and strong and stretches little when pulled. Therefore, a collagen fiber is like a string, rope, or cable. Woven mats of collagen fibers can form tough sheets (e.g., flat tendons), while bundles of collagen fibers can form strong cable-like connectors (e.g., ligaments).

    Elastin Fibers

    Another common type of fiber is made of a protein called elastin. As in a collagen fiber, the molecules in an elastin fiber are aligned and twisted together. Though an elastin fiber is flexible, the nature and arrangement of the elastin molecules produce a fiber that stretches easily when pulled. The fiber also snaps back to its original length when the tension is released. Therefore, an elastin fiber resembles a rubber band. The ability to be stretched and snap back is called elasticity. Structures containing many elastin fibers are often resilient (e.g., outer ear, dermis of skin).

    This page titled 2.6: Intercellular Materials - Properties and Functions is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Augustine G. DiGiovanna via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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