The primary stroma of the avian cornea contains collagen fibrils in orthogonal array. While investigating the processes underlying its morphogenesis, we have found that stromal organization is not as expected in three important respects. First, the fibrils are not uniform: those near the epithelium (newly laid down) have a maximum diameter of about 20 nm (mean: 17.7 nm), while those near the endothelium (laid down for approx. 40 h) have diameters up to 40 nm (mean: 22.8 nm). Fibrils thus grow rapidly to 20 nm and then continue to enlarge slowly, presumably by diffusion of collagen molecules from the epithelium. Second, the collagen, although orthogonally organized, does not contain layers of parallel fibrils. Instead, SEM observation shows that only a few fibrils lie in a parallel array before this short-range order is broken by orthogonal fibrils in the same plane. Furthermore, fibrils in corneas that had been freeze dried but not critical-point dried for SEM were widely spaced and the intervening gaps were filled by an extensive matrix that was probably composed of the proteoglycans known to be in the stroma. Third, we have shown experimentally that the stromal undulations seen in sections are not present in vivo but are shrinkage artifacts: the less corneas were shrunk for SEM preparation, the less pronounced were the stromal undulations. We also noted that, even after the distortions required for the stroma to undulate, the constituent fibrils remained orthogonally organized. These results give insight into the mechanisms underlying stromal morphogenesis and growth. The observations on the growth of collagen fibrils and on collagen organization show that stromal deposition is a more stochastic process than previously thought and, hence, provides support for the view that a complex self-assembly mechanism underlies both fibrillogenesis and the generation of orthogonal organization. The experiments on, and the analysis of, stromal folding show that fibrils slide over one another as undulations form, with the extensive matrix of hydrated proteoglycans being the likely lubricant. This fluidity of the stromal components probably explains how growth can occur without the structure being distorted.

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