The 67-kD elastin-binding protein (EBP) mediates cell adhesion to elastin and elastin fiber assembly, and it is similar, if not identical, to the 67-kD enzymatically inactive, alternatively spliced beta-galactosidase. The latter contains an elastin binding domain (S-GAL) homologous both to the aorta EBP and to NH2-terminal sequences of serine proteinases (Hinek, A., M. Rabinovitch, F. W. Keeley, and J. Callahan. 1993. J. Clin. Invest. 91:1198-1205). We now confirm the functional importance of this homology by showing that elastolytic activity of a representative serine elastase, porcine pancreatic elastase, was prevented by an antibody (anti-S-GAL) and by competing with purified EBP or S-GAL peptide. Immunohistochemistry of adult aorta indicates that the EBP exists as a permanent component of mature elastic fibers. This observation, together with the in vitro studies, suggests that the EBP could protect insoluble elastin from extracellular proteolysis and contribute to the extraordinary stability of this protein. Double immunolabeling of fetal lamb aorta with anti-S-GAL and antitropoelastin antibodies demonstrated, under light and electron microscopy, intracellular colocalization of the proteins in smooth muscle cells (SMC). Incubation of SMC with galactosugars to dissociate tropoelastin from EBP caused intracellular aggregation of tropoelastin. A tropoelastin/EBP complex was extracted from SMC lysates by coimmunoprecipitation and cross-linking, and its functional significance was addressed by showing that its dissociation by galactosugars caused degradation of tropoelastin by endogenous serine proteinase(s). This suggests that the EBP may also serve as a "companion" to intracellular tropoelastin, protecting this highly hydrophobic protein from self-aggregation and proteolytic degradation.

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