Elasticity is essential to the function of tissues such as blood vessels, muscles, and lungs. This property is derived mostly from the extracellular matrix (ECM), the protein meshwork that binds cells and tissues together. How the elastic properties of an ECM network relate to its composition, and whether the relaxation properties of the ECM play a physiological role, are questions that have yet to be fully addressed. Part of the challenge lies in the complex architecture of most ECM systems and the difficulty in isolating ECM components without compromising their structure. One exception is the zonule, an ECM system found in the eye of vertebrates. The zonule comprises fibers hundreds to thousands of micrometers in length that span the cell-free space between the lens and the eyewall. In this report, we describe a mechanical technique that takes advantage of the highly organized structure of the zonule to quantify its viscoelastic properties and to determine the contribution of individual protein components. The method involves dissection of a fixed eye to expose the lens and the zonule and employs a pull-up technique that stretches the zonular fibers equally while their tension is monitored. The technique is relatively inexpensive yet sensitive enough to detect alterations in viscoelastic properties of zonular fibers in mice lacking specific zonular proteins or with aging. Although the method presented here is designed primarily for studying ocular development and disease, it could also serve as an experimental model for exploring broader questions regarding the viscoelastic properties of elastic ECM's and the role of external factors such as ionic concentration, temperature, and interactions with signaling molecules.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere63171
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number178
StatePublished - Dec 2021


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