Extracellular matrix, supramolecular organisation and shape

J Anat. 1995 Oct;187 ( Pt 2)(Pt 2):259-69.


Connective tissue function is defined as the formation and maintenance of shape, without which centralised physiologies (circulatory, digestive or nervous) could not have evolved. Two elements, inextensible (collagenous) fibrils and compression-resistant interfibrillar soluble polymers (proteoglycans), cope with all usual stresses. Relationships between the two are highly specific, as demonstrated by electron histochemistry based on Cupromeronic blue and critical electrolyte concentration (CEC) methodologies. Recent ideas on (1) the protofibrillar or modular structure of collagen fibrils, (2) the nature of specific binding sites for proteoglycans on fibrils, and (3) fundamental similarities in secondary and tertiary structures of the glycosaminoglycans (hyaluronan, chondroitin, keratan and dermatan sulphates) are described. They have greatly illuminated the study of extracellular matrix structure and function in normal, pathological (osteogenesis imperfecta) and ageing tissues. The small proteoglycans are proposed to be tissue organisers, orienting and ordering the collagen fibrils--thus shaping the tissue at a molecular and ultimately macro level. These interfibrillar structures are based on their bifunctional character, the protein parts binding to collagen fibrils at specific sites and the glycosaminoglycans duplexing and aggregating to hold the proteins and hence the collagen fibrils at defined distances from each other, rather like yardsticks. Examples of the way these functions work in specific tissues are drawn from the cornea and vitreous humour of the eye and developing tendon.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carbohydrate Sequence
  • Collagen / metabolism*
  • Connective Tissue / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism*
  • Extracellular Matrix / physiology
  • Extracellular Matrix / ultrastructure
  • Glycosaminoglycans / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Proteoglycans / metabolism*


  • Glycosaminoglycans
  • Proteoglycans
  • Collagen