It is generally proposed that embryonic mesenchymal cells use sulfated macromolecules during in situ migration. Attempts to resolve the molecular mechanisms for this hypothesis using planar substrates have been met with limited success. In the present study, we provide evidence that the functional significance of certain sulfated macromolecules during mesenchyme migration required the presence of the endogenous migratory template; i.e., native collagen fibrils. Using three-dimensional collagen gel lattices and whole embryo culture procedures to produce metabolically labeled sulfated macromolecules in embryonic chick cardiac tissue, we show that these molecules were primarily proteoglycan (PG) in nature and that their distribution was class specific; i.e., heparan sulfate PG, the minor labeled component (15%), remained pericellular while chondroitin sulfate (CS) PG, the predominately labeled PG (85%), was associated with collagen fibrils as "trails" of 50-60-nm particles when viewed by scanning electron microscopy. Progressive "conditioning" of collagen with CS-PG inhibited the capacity of the template to support subsequent cell migration. Lastly, metabolically labeled, PG-derived CS chains were compared with respect to degree of sulfation in either the C-6 or C-4 position by chromatographic separation of chondroitinase AC digestion products. Results from temporal and regional comparisons of in situ-labeled PGs indicated a positive correlation between the presence of mesenchyme and an enrichment of disaccharide-4S relative to that from regions lacking mesenchyme (i.e., principally myocardial tissue). The suggestion of a mesenchyme-specific CS-PG was substantiated by similarly examining the PGs synthesized solely by cardiac mesenchymal cells migrating within hydrated collagen lattice in culture. These data were incorporated into a model of "substratum conditioning" which provides a molecular mechanism by which secretion of mesenchyme-specific CS-PGs not only provides for directed and sustained cell movement, but ultimately inhibits migration of the cell population as a whole.

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