As assessed by electron microscopy, the reported shape of the plasma fibronectin molecule ranges from that of a compact particle to an elongated, rod-like structure. In this study, we evaluated the effects of solution and surface conditions on fibronectin shape. Freeze-dried, unstained human plasma fibronectin molecules deposited at pH 7.0-7.4 onto carbon films and examined by scanning transmission electron microscopy appeared relatively compact and pleiomorphic, with approximate average dimensions of 24 nm X 16 nm. Negatively stained molecules also had a similar shape but revealed greater detail in that we observed irregular, yarn-like structures. Glutaraldehyde-induced intramolecular cross-linking did not alter the appearance of plasma fibronectin. Molecules deposited at pH 2.8, pH 9.3, or after succinylation were less compact than those deposited at neutral pH. In contrast, fibronectin molecules sprayed onto mica surfaces at pH 7, rotary shadowed, and examined by transmission electron microscopy were elongated and nodular with a contour length of 120-130 nm. Sedimentation velocity experiments and electron microscopic observations indicate that fibronectin unfolds when it is succinylated, when the ionic strength is raised at pH 7, or when the pH is adjusted to 9.3 or 2.8. Greater unfolding is observed at pH 2.8 at low ionic strength (less than 0.01) compared with material at that pH in 0.15 M NaCl solution. We conclude that (a) the shape assumed by the fibronectin molecule can be strongly affected by solution conditions and by deposition onto certain surfaces; and that (b) the images of fibronectin seen by scanning transmission electron microscopy at neutral pH on carbon film are representative of molecules in physiologic solution.

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