Synthesis of collagen types I, II, III, and IV in cells from the embryonic chick cornea was studied using specific antibodies and immunofluorescence. Synthesis of radioactively labeled collagen types I and III was followed by fluorographic detection of cyanogen bromide peptides on polyacrylamide slab gels and by carboxymethylcellulose chromatography followed by disc gel electrophoresis. Type III collagen had been detected previously by indirect immunofluorescence in the corneal epithelial cells at Hamburger-Hamilton stages 20--30 but not in the stroma at any age. Intact corneas from embryos older than stage 30 contain and synthesize type I collagen but no detectable type III collagen. However, whole stromata subjected to collagenase treatment and scraping (to remove epithelium and endothelium) and stromal fibroblasts from such corneas inoculated in vitro begin synthesis of type III collagen within a few hours while continuing to synthesize type I collagen. As demonstrated by double-antibody staining, most corneal fibroblasts contain collagen types I and III simultaneously. Collagen type III was identified biochemically in cell layers and media after chromatography on carboxymethylcellulose be detection of disulfide-linked alpha l (III)3 by SDS gel electrophoresis. The conditions under which the corneal fibroblasts gain the ability to synthesize type III collagen are the same as those under which they lose the ability to synthesize the specific proteoglycan of the cornea: the presence of corneal-type keratan sulfate.

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