Tip-mediated fusion involving unipolar collagen fibrils accounts for rapid fibril elongation, the occurrence of fibrillar branched networks in skin and the paucity of collagen fibril ends in vertebrates

Matrix Biol. 2000 Aug;19(4):359-65. doi: 10.1016/s0945-053x(00)00082-2.


Collagen fibrils are the principal source of mechanical strength of connective tissues such as tendon, skin, cornea, cartilage and bone. The ability of these tissues to withstand tensile forces is directly attributable to the length and diameter of the fibrils, and to interactions between individual fibrils. Although electron microscopy studies have provided information on fibril diameters, little is known about the length of fibrils in tissue and how fibrils interact with each other. The question of fibril length has been difficult to address because fibril ends are rarely observed in cross-sections of tissue. The paucity of fibril ends, or tips, has led to controversy about how long individual fibrils might be and how the fibrils grow in length and diameter. This review describes recent discoveries that are relevant to these questions. We now know that vertebrate collagen fibrils are synthesised as short (1-3 microm) early fibrils that fuse end-to-end in young tissues to generate very long fibrils. The diameter of the final fibril is determined by the diameter of the collagen early fibrils. During a late stage of tissue assembly fibril tips fuse to fibril shafts to generate branched networks. Of direct relevance to fibril fusion is the fact that collagen fibrils can be unipolar or bipolar, depending on the orientation of collagen molecules in the fibril. Fusion relies on: (1) specific molecular interactions at the carboxyl terminal ends of unipolar collagen fibrils; and (2) the insulator function of small proteoglycans to shield the surfaces of fibrils from inappropriate fusion reactions. The fusion of tips to shafts to produce branched networks of collagen fibrils is an elegant mechanism to increase the mechanical strength of tissues and provides an explanation for the paucity of fibril tips in older tissue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell-Free System
  • Collagen / metabolism*
  • Procollagen / metabolism
  • Proteoglycans / metabolism
  • Skin / metabolism*
  • Skin Physiological Phenomena
  • Time Factors
  • Vertebrates


  • Procollagen
  • Proteoglycans
  • Collagen