Previously, we have shown that embryonic corneal epithelia can interact with, and respond to, soluble extracellular matrices (ECM) (laminin, collagen, and fibronectin). The basal surface of epithelia isolated free of the underlying ECM can be seen to be disrupted by numerous blebs that sprout from this formerly smooth surface. Laminin, collagen, or fibronectin added to the culture medium cause the epithelium to reorganize its cytoskeleton and flatten its basal surface. We show here that ECM molecules at concentrations that reorganize epithelial cytoskeletal morphology also increase the amount of collagen produced by the epithelial cells. However, molecules that do not reorganize basal epithelial morphology (concanavalin A, heparin, bovine serum albumin) have no effect on collagen production. We also report that fluorescently labeled laminin, collagen, and fibronectin, when added to the medium surrounding isolated corneal epithelia, bind to and flatten the basal epithelial cell surface. The binding site on the basal surface is protease sensitive and is specific for each ECM molecule. These results are compatible with the idea that the basal epithelial plasmalemma possesses a diverse population of binding sites for ECM that link cell surface matrix to the cytoskeleton, causing a dramatic cytoskeletal reorganization which in turn results in enhanced production of collagen by the cells.

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