Immunocytochemical methods were used at the levels of light and electron microscopy to examine the intracellular compartments of chondrocytes involved in extracellular matrix biosynthesis. The results of our studies provide morphological evidence for the compartmentalization of secretory proteins in the ER. Precursors of the large chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (CSPG), the major proteoglycan species produced by chondrocytes, were present in the Golgi complex. In addition, CSPG precursors were localized in specialized regions of the ER. Link protein, a separate gene product which functions to stabilize extracellular aggregates of CSPG monomers with hyaluronic acid, was segregated similarly. In contrast, type II procollagen, another major secretory molecule produced by chondrocytes, was found homogeneously distributed throughout the ER. The CSPG precursor-containing ER compartment exhibits a variable tubulo-vesicular morphology but is invariably recognized as an electronlucent, smooth membrane-bounded region continuous with typical ribosome-studded elements of the rough ER. The observation that this ER structure does not stain with antibodies against resident ER proteins also suggests that the compartment is a specialized region distinct from the main part of the ER. These results support recent studies that consider the ER as a compartmentalized organelle and are discussed in light of the possible implications for proteoglycan biosynthesis and processing.

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