A number of factors have been implicated in the regulation of tissue-specific collagen fibril diameter. Previous data suggest that assembly of heterotypic fibrils composed of two different fibrillar collagens represents a general mechanism regulating fibril diameter. Specifically, we hypothesize that type V collagen is required for the assembly of the small diameter fibrils observed in the cornea. To test this, we used a dominant-negative retroviral strategy to decrease the levels of type V collagen secreted by chicken corneal fibroblasts. The chicken alpha 1(V) collagen gene was cloned, and retroviral vectors that expressed a polycistronic mRNA encoding a truncated alpha 1(V) minigene and the reporter gene LacZ were constructed. The efficiency of viral infection was 30-40%, as determined by assaying beta-galactosidase activity. To assess the expression from the recombinant provirus, Northern analysis was performed and indicated that infected fibroblasts expressed high steady-state levels of retroviral mRNA. Infected cells synthesized the truncated alpha 1(V) protein, and this was detectable only intracellularly, in a distribution that colocalized with lysosomes. To assess endogenous alpha 1(V) protein levels, infected cell cultures were assayed, and these consistently demonstrated reductions relative to control virus-infected or uninfected cultures. Analyses of corneal fibril morphology demonstrated that the reduction in type V collagen resulted in the assembly of large-diameter fibrils with a broad size distribution, characteristics similar to fibrils produced in connective tissues with low type V concentrations. Immunoelectron microscopy demonstrated the amino-terminal domain of type V collagen was associated with the small-diameter fibrils, but not the large fibrils. These data indicate that type V collagen levels regulate corneal fibril diameter and that the reduction of type V collagen is sufficient to alter fibril assembly so that abnormally large-diameter fibrils are deposited into the matrix.

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