The conformation of the polysaccharide hyaluronan (HA) has been investigated by tapping mode atomic force microscopy in air. HA deposited on a prehydrated mica surface favored an extended conformation, attributed to molecular combing and inhibition of subsequent chain recoil by adhesion to the structured water layer covering the surface. HA deposited on freshly cleaved mica served as a defect in a partially structured water layer, and favored relaxed, weakly helical, coiled conformations. Intramolecularly condensed forms of HA were also observed, ranging from pearl necklace forms to thick rods. The condensation is attributed to weak adhesion to the mica surface, counterion-mediated attractive electrostatic interactions between polyelectrolytes, and hydration effects. Intermolecular association of both extended and condensed forms of HA was observed to result in the formation of networks and twisted fibers, in which the chain direction is not necessarily parallel to the fiber direction. Whereas the relaxed coil and partially condensed conformations of HA are relevant to the native structure of liquid connective tissues, fully condensed rods may be more relevant for HA tethered to a cell surface or intracellular HA, and fibrous forms may be relevant for HA subjected to shear flow in tight intercellular spaces or in protein-HA complexes.
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