The influence of extracellular matrix configuration on the tissue-specific function of cultured hepatocytes was investigated. Adult rat hepatocytes sandwiched between two layers of collagen gel were compared to cells cultured on a single layer of collagen gel for differences in the total RNA content, the level of albumin-specific mRNA, the rate of albumin gene transcription, and the rate of albumin mRNA translation. Adult hepatocytes in the sandwich system maintained the level of albumin mRNA similar to that found in the normal liver for at least six weeks, whereas the level of albumin mRNA declined rapidly in the single gel system. After one week of culture, hepatocytes in the single gel system could be induced to recover the high level of albumin mRNA and albumin production when a second layer of collagen gel was overlaid at that time. Furthermore, sandwiched hepatocytes maintained significantly higher transcriptional activity compared to cells in the single gel system. In addition to transcriptional control, the ultimate rate of albumin production was shown to depend on the rate of translation, which increased with culture time and reached a plateau in one to two weeks. This increase in translational activity over time in culture was observed in both the sandwich and the single gel systems and, thus, appeared to be independent of the configuration of extracellular matrix.

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