Development and maturation of an extracellular matrix, synthesized by human gingival fibroblasts, have been studied microscopically. Pairs of demineralized, fibronectin-coated slices of human tooth root, 300 micron thick, were placed on confluent cell layers, defining a 0.5 mm wide space. The cultures were grown under standard conditions with ascorbic acid (50 micrograms ml-1) added daily. At various times up to 13 weeks, the cultures were fixed and the samples prepared for light and electron microscopy. Cells from the monolayer became attached to, and migrated up, the vertical root surface and, during the time studied, completely filled the space between the root slices with an extracellular matrix. A close association was seen between the cell membrane and collagen fibres in the demineralized surface initially. A thin layer of fibrillar material was deposited between the cell and the vertical surface, and eventually an extracellular matrix surrounding the cells and attaching to the root surface was present. Samples fixed in the presence of Ruthenium Red showed intense staining of the fibrillar material, indicating the presence of anionic molecules. Additional cells migrated onto the newly synthesized matrix and up the root surface. Growth of the fibrillar networks on either side, horizontally and vertically, continued and, eventually, an extracellular matrix attaching to the vertical surfaces completely filled the previously empty space. Immunocytochemical staining showed that the matrix contained hyaluronic acid, chondroitin sulphate, dermatan sulphate and fibronectin at this time. Collagen fibres were observed at 6 weeks, and at later times collagen types I, III and V were the primary matrix components. The fibroblasts attaching to the root slice and those present at the edge of the matrix had an elongated, polar form. The cells within the matrix frequently showed a stellate appearance with numerous extended processes, in contact with fibrillar material or collagen fibres. Fibroblast processes were at later times seen to enclose bundles of collagen fibres and to mediate cell-to-cell contact, occasionally via desmosome-like structures. The structure and composition of the matrix and the appearance and apparent behaviour of the cells were similar to that observed in the healing wound. This system thus could provide a model for studying various aspects of regeneration of extracellular matrix.

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