The present study was undertaken to determine whether or not physical contact with the substratum is essential for the stimulatory effect of extracellular matrix (ECM) on corneal epithelial collagen synthesis. Previous studies showed that collagenous substrata stimulate isolated epithelia to produce three times as much collagen as they produce on noncollagenous substrate; killed collagenous substrata (e.g., lens capsule) are just as effective as living substrata (e.g., living lens) in promoting the production of new corneal stroma in vitro. In the experiments to be reported here, corneal epithelia were placed on one side of Nucleopore filters of different pore sizes and killed lens capsule on the other, with the expectation that contact of the reacting cells with the lens ECM should be limited by the number and size of the cell processes that can tranverse the pores. Transfilter cultures were grown for 24 h in [3H]proline-containing median and incorporation of isotope into hot trichloroacetic acid-soluble protein was used to measure corneal epithelial collagen production. Epithelial collagen synthesis increases directly as the size of the pores in the interposed filter increases and decreases as the thickness of the filter layer increases. Cell processes within Nucleopore filters were identified with the transmission electron microscope with difficulty; with the scanning electron microscope, however, the processes could easily be seen emerging from the undersurface of even 0.1-mum pore size filters. Morphometric techniques were used to show that cell surface area thus exposed to the underlying ECM is linearly correlated with enhancement of collagen synthesis. Epithelial cell processes did not pass through ultrathin (25-mum thick) 0.45-mum pore size Millipore filters nor did "induction" occur across them. The results are discussed in relation to current theories of embryonic tissue interaction.

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