Chick embryo fibroblasts cultured on a collagen matrix exert tractional forces leading to the contraction of unrestrained, floating collagen gels and to the development of tension in attached, restrained gels. On a restrained, attached collagen gel the fibroblasts synthesize large quantities of tenascin-C, whereas in a floating, contracting gel tenascin-C synthesis is decreased. This regulation of tenascin-C synthesis can be observed by the secretion of metabolically labeled tenascin-C into the conditioned medium, as well as by the deposition of tenascin-C into the collagen matrix as judged by immunofluorescence. Regulation appears to occur at the transcriptional level, because when cells on attached or floating collagen gels are transfected with promoter constructs of the tenascin-C gene, luciferase expression driven by the tenascin-C promoter parallels the effects measured for endogenous tenascin-C synthesis, whereas luciferase expression under the control of the SV40 promoter does not depend on the state of the collagen gel. The promoter region responsible for tenascin-C induction on attached collagen gels is distinct from the region important for the induction of tenascin-C by serum, and may define a novel kind of response element. By joining this tenascin-C sequence to the SV40 promoter of a reporter plasmid, its activity can be transferred to the heterologous promoter. We propose that the tenascin-C promoter is directly or indirectly activated in fibroblasts generating and experiencing mechanical stress within a restrained collagen matrix. This may be an important aspect of the regulation of tenascin-C expression during embryogenesis as well as during wound healing and other regenerative and morphogenetic processes.

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