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We analyze the force-extension curve for a general class of systems, which are described at the mesoscopic level by a free energy depending on the extension of its components. Similarly to what is done in real experiments, the total length of the system is the controlled parameter. This imposes a global constraint in the minimization procedure leading to the equilibrium values of the extensions. As a consequence, the force-extension curve has multiple branches in a certain range of forces. The stability of these branches is governed by the free energy: there are a series of first-order phase transitions at certain values of the total length, in which the free energy itself is continuous but its first derivative, the force, has a finite jump. This behavior is completely similar to that observed in real experiments with biomolecules like proteins and with other complex systems.