Our object was to obtain information about the molecular structures present at cell-substratum and cell-cell contact sites formed by cultured fibroblasts. We have carried out double immunoelectron-microscopic labeling experiments on ultrathin frozen sections cut through such contact sites to determine the absolute and relative dispositions of the three proteins fibronectin, vinculin, and alpha-actinin with respect to these sites. (a) Three types of cell-substratum and cell-cell contact sites familiar from plastic sections could also be discriminated in the frozen sections by morphological criteria alone, i.e., the gap distances between the two surfaces, and the presence of submembranous densities. These types were: (i) focal adhesions (FA); (ii) close contacts (CC); and (iii) extracellular matrix contacts (ECM). This morphological typing of the contact sites allowed us to recognize and assign distinctive immunolabeling patterns for the three proteins to each type of site on the frozen sections. (b) FA sites were immunolabeled intracellularly for vinculin and alpha-actinin, with vinculin labeling situated closer to the membrane than alpha-actinin. Fibronectin was not labeled in the narrow gap between the cell surface and the substratum, or between two cells, at FA sites. Control experiments showed that this could not be ascribed to inaccessibility of the FA narrow gap to the immunolabeling reagents but indicated an absence or severe depletion of fibronectin from these sites. (c) CC sites were labeled intracellularly for alpha-actinin but not vinculin and were labeled extracellularly for fibronectin. (d) ECM sites were characterized by large separations (often greater than 100 nm) between the cell and substratum or between two cells, which were connected by long cables of extracellular matrix components, including fibronectin. In late (24-36 h) cultures, ECM contacts predominated over the other types. ECM sites appeared to be of two kinds, one labeled intracellularly for both alpha-actinin and vinculin, the other for alpha-actinin alone. (e) From these and other results, a coherent but tentative scheme is proposed for the molecular ultrastructure of these contacts sites, and specific functional roles are suggested for fibronectin, vinculin, and alpha-actinin in cell adhesion and in the linkage of intracellular microfilaments to membranes at the different types of contact sites.

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