The three-dimensional tertiary structure of human von Willebrand Factor (vWF) on a hydrophobic surface under aqueous conditions and different shear stress regimes was studied by atomic force microscopy (AFM). vWF was imaged by AFM at molecular level resolution under negligible shear stress, under a local applied shear force (7.4 to 19 nN) using the AFM probe in contact mode scanning, and after subjecting vWF to a range of shear stress (0 to 42.4 dyn/cm2) using a rotating disk system. The results demonstrate that vWF undergoes a shear stress-induced conformational transition from a globular state to an extended chain conformation with exposure of intra-molecular globular domains at a critical shear stress of 35 +/- 3.5 dyn/cm2. The globular vWF conformation (149 nm by 77 nm and height 3.8 nm) is representative of native vWF after simple diffusion to the hydrophobic surface, followed by adhesion and some spreading. In a shear stress field above the critical value, protein unfolding occurs and vWF is observed in extended chain conformations oriented in the direction of the shear stress field with molecular lengths ranging from 146 to 774 nm and 3.4 nm mean height. The shear stress-induced structural changes to vWF suggest a close conformation-function relationship in vWF properties for thrombogenesis in regions of high shear stress.

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