Objective: Despite the role that extracellular matrix (ECM) plays in vascular signaling, little is known of the complex structural arrangement between specific ECM proteins and vascular smooth muscle cells. Our objective was to examine the hypothesis that adventitial elastin fibers are dominant in vessels subject to longitudinal stretch.
Methods and results: Cremaster muscle arterioles were isolated, allowed to develop spontaneous tone, and compared with small cerebral arteries. 3D confocal microscopy was used to visualize ECM within the vessel wall. Pressurized arterioles were fixed and stained with Alexa 633 hydrazide (as a nonselective ECM marker), anti-elastin, or anti-type 1 collagen antibody and a fluorescent nuclear stain. Exposure of cremaster muscle arterioles to elastase for 5 minutes caused an irreversible lengthening of the vessel segment that was not observed in cerebral arteries. Longitudinal elastin fibers were demonstrated on cremaster muscle arterioles using 3D imaging but were confirmed to be absent in cerebral vessels. The fibers were also distinct from type I collagen fibers and were degraded by elastase treatment.
Conclusions: These results indicate the importance of elastin in bearing longitudinal stress in the arteriolar wall and that these fibers constrain vascular smooth muscle cells. Differences between skeletal muscle and cerebral small arteries may reflect differences in the local mechanical environment, such as exposure to longitudinal stretch.