We studied the ultrastructural characteristics of alveolar basement membranes (ABM) and capillary basement membranes (CBM) in rat lungs at birth, at 8-10 d of age, during alveolar formation, and at 6-10 wk of age, after most alveoli have formed. We also measured in vitro lung proteoglycan and heparan sulfate synthesis at each age. We noted three major age-related changes in pulmonary basement membranes. (a) Discontinuities in the ABM through which basilar cytoplasmic foot processes extend are present beneath alveolar type-2 cells but not alveolar type-1 cells. These discontinuities are most prevalent at birth but also exist in the adult. (b) Discontinuities are also present in CBM at the two earliest time points but are maximal at 8 d of age rather than at birth. Fusions between ABM and CBM are often absent at 8 d of age, but CBM and CBM/ABM fusions were complete in the adult. (c) Heparan sulfate proteoglycans identified with ruthenium red and selective enzyme degradation are distributed equally on epithelial and interstitial sides of the ABM lamina densa at birth, but decrease on the interstitial side with age. In vitro proteoglycan and heparan sulfate accumulation at birth was two times that at 8 d and five times that in the adult. Discontinuities in ABM allow epithelial-mesenchymal interactions that may influence type-2 cells cytodifferentiation. Discontinuities in CBM suggest that capillary proliferation and neovascularization are associated with alveolar formation at 8 d. When CBM becomes complete and forms junctions with ABM, lung neovascularization likely ends as does the ability to form new alveoli.

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