2002 Volume 65 Issue 2 Pages 109-126
Fibrous components of the extracellular matrix are light-microscopically classified into three types of fibers: collagen, reticular and elastic. The present study reviews the ultrastructure of these fibrous components as based on our previous studies by light, electron, and atomic force microscopy.
Collagen fibers present a cord- or tape-shape 1-20 μm wide and run a wavy course in tissues. These fibers consist of closely packed thin collagen fibrils (30-100 nm thick in ordinary tissues of mammals), and exhibit splitting and joining in altering the number of the fibrils to form a three-dimensional network as a whole. Individual collagen fibrils (i.e., unit fibrils) in collagen fibers have a characteristic D-banding pattern whose length is ranges from 64 to 67 nm, depending on tissues and organs. During fibrogenesis, collagen fibrils are considered to be produced by fusing short and thin fibrils with tapered ends.
Reticular fibers are usually observed as a delicate meshwork of fine fibrils stained black by the silver impregnation method. They usually underlie the epithelium and cover the surface of such cells of muscle cells, adipose cells and Schwann cells. Electron-microscopically, reticular fibers are observed as individual collagen fibrils or a small bundle of the fibrils, although the diameter of the fibrils is thin (about 30 nm) and uniform. Reticular fibers are continuous with collagen fibers through the exchange of these collagen fibrils. In silver-impregnated specimens, individual fibrils in reticular fibers are densely coated with coarse metal particles, probably due to the high content of glycoproteins around the fibrils.
Elastic fibers and laminae are composed of microfibrils and elastin components. Observations of the extracted elastin have revealed that elastin components are comprised of elastin fibrils about 0.1-0.2μm thick. Elastic fibers and laminae are continuous with networks and/or bundles of microfibrils (or oxytalan fibers), and form an elastic network specific to individual tissues.
The fibrous components of the extracellular matrix are thereby morphologically categorized into two systems: the collagen fibrillar system as a supporting framework of tissues and cells, and the microfibril-elastin system for uniformly distributing stress to maintain the resilience adapted to local tissue requirements.