The synthesis of an extracellular matrix containing long (~mm in length) collagen fibrils is fundamental to the normal morphogenesis of animal tissues. In this study we have direct evidence that fibroblasts synthesise transient early fibril intermediates (~1 μm in length) that interact by tip-to-tip fusion to generate long fibrils seen in older tissues. Examination of early collagen fibrils from tendon showed that two types of early fibrils occur: unipolar fibrils (with carboxyl (C) and amino (N) ends) and bipolar fibrils (with two N-ends). End-to-end fusion requires the C-end of a unipolar fibril. Proteoglycans coated the shafts of the fibrils but not the tips. In the absence of proteoglycans the fibrils aggregated by side-to-side interactions. Therefore, proteoglycans promote tip-to-tip fusion and inhibit side-to-side fusion. This distribution of proteoglycan along the fibril required co-assembly of collagen and proteoglycan prior to fibril assembly. The study showed that collagen fibrillogenesis is a hierarchical process that depends on the unique structure of unipolar fibrils and a novel function of proteoglycans. (C) 2000 Academic Press.
- Electron microscopy