Type I collagen is a major structural protein in mammals that shows highly structured macromolecular organizations specific to each tissue. This biopolymer is synthesized as triple helices, which self-assemble into fibrils (Ø =10-300 nm) and further form various 3D organization. In recent years, Second Harmonic Generation (SHG) microscopy has emerged as a powerful technique to probe in situ the fibrillar collagenous network within tissues. However, this optical technique cannot resolve most of the fibrils and is a coherent process, which has impeded quantitative measurements of the fibril diameter so far.
In this study, we correlated SHG microscopy with Transmission Electron Microscopy to determine the sensitivity of SHG microscopy and to calibrate SHG signals as a function of the fibril diameter in reconstructed collagen gels. To that end, we synthetized isolated fibrils with various diameters and successfully imaged the very same fibrils with both techniques, down to 30 nm diameter. We observed that SHG signals scaled as the fourth power of the fibril diameter, as expected from analytical and numerical calculations. This calibration was then applied to diabetic rat cornea in which we successfully recovered the diameter of hyperglycemia-induced fibrils in the Descemet’s membrane without having to resolve them. Finally we derived the first hyperpolarizability from a single collagen triple helix which validates the bottom-up approach used to calculate the non-linear response at the fibrillar scale and denotes a parallel alignment of triple helices within the fibrils. These results represent a major step towards quantitative SHG imaging of nm-sized collagen fibrils.