The organization of type IV collagen in the unconventional basement membrane of the corneal endothelium (Descemet's membrane) was investigated in developing chicken embryos using anti-collagen mAbs. Both immunofluorescence histochemistry and immunoelectron microscopy were performed. In mature embryos (greater than 15 d of development), the type IV collagen of Descemet's membrane was present as an array of discrete aggregates of amorphous material at the interface between Descemet's membrane and the posterior corneal stroma. Immunoreactivity for type IV collagen was also observed in the posterior corneal stroma as irregular plaques of material with a morphology similar to that of the Descemet's membrane-associated aggregates. This arrangement of Descemet's membrane-associated type IV collagen developed from a subendothelial mat of type IV collagen-containing material. This mat, in which type IV collagen-specific immunoreactivity was always discontinuous, first appeared at the time a confluent endothelium was established, well before the onset of Descemet's membrane formation. Immunoelectron microscopy of mature corneas revealed that the characteristic nodal matrix of Descemet's membrane itself was unreactive for type IV collagen, but was penetrated at intervals by projections of type IV collagen-containing material. These projections frequently appeared to contact cell processes from the underlying corneal endothelium. This spatial arrangement of type IV collagen suggests that it serves to suture the corneal endothelium/Descemet's membrane to the dense interfacial matrix of the posterior stroma.

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