Explants of fetal rat sensory ganglia, cultured under conditions allowing axon and Schwann cell outgrowth in the absence of fibroblasts, occasionally develop nerve fascicles that are partially suspended in culture medium above the collagen substrate. In these suspended regions, fascicles are abnormal in that Schwann cells are decreased in number, are confined to occasional clusters along the fascicle, provide ensheathment for only a few axons at the fascicle periphery, and do not form myelin. When these fascicles are presented with a substrate of reconstituted rat-tail collagen, Schwann cell numbers increase, ensheathment of small nerve fibers occurs normally, and larger axons are myelinated. We conclude that, for normal development, Schwann cells require contact with extracellular matrix as well as axons. The Schwann cell abnormalities in suspended fascicles are similar to those observed in nerve roots of dystrophic mice.

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