Unfolding of titin domains explains the viscoelastic behavior of skeletal myofibrils
The elastic section of the giant muscle protein titin contains many immunoglobulin-like domains, which have been shown by single-molecule mechanical studies to unfold and refold upon stretch-release. Here we asked whether the mechanical properties of Ig domains and/or other titin regions could be responsible for the viscoelasticity of nonactivated skeletal-muscle sarcomeres, particularly for stress relaxation and force hysteresis. We show that isolated psoas myofibrils respond to a stretch-hold protocol with a characteristic force decay that becomes more pronounced following stretch to above 2.6-mm sarcomere length. The force decay was readily reproducible by a Monte Carlo simulation taking into account both the kinetics of Ig-domain unfolding and the worm-like-chain model of entropic elasticity used to describe titin’s elastic behavior. The modeling indicated that the force decay is explainable by the unfolding of only a very small number of Ig domains per titin molecule. The simulation also predicted that a unique sequence in titin, the PEVK domain, may undergo minor structural changes during sarcomere extension. Myofibrils subjected to 1-Hz cycles of stretch-release exhibited distinct hysteresis that persisted during repetitive measurements. Quick stretch-release protocols, in which variable pauses were introduced after the release, revealed a two-exponential time course of hysteresis recovery. The rate constants of recovery compared well with the refolding rates of Ig-like or fibronectin-like domains measured by single-protein mechanical analysis. These findings suggest that in the sarcomere, titin’s Ig-domain regions may act as entropic springs capable of adjusting their contour length in response to a stretch.