We have examined the pattern of expression of four different matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), collagenase, stromelysin, 92 kD gelatinase, and 72 kD gelatinase, by primary and passaged cultures of rabbit corneal fibroblasts. Primary cultures of this cell type have previously been shown to reproduce the normal tissue regulation of collagenase expression. We demonstrate qualitative and quantitative changes in the pattern of MMP expression as the cells are passaged in culture. Only a single MMP, 72 kD gelatinase, is constitutively expressed by primary fibroblast cultures. Phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) treatment upregulates expression of 72 kD gelatinase and turns on the expression of collagenase and stromelysin, as well as 92 kD gelatinase. However, the degree to which MMP expression is induced is minimal. Cells subcultured but a single time constitutively produce not only 72 kD gelatinase, but also collagenase and stromelysin. In addition, PMA treatment upregulates expression of collagenase, stromelysin and 92 kD gelatinase to high levels. In contrast, the expression of 72 kD gelatinase is repressed by treatment of passaged cell cultures with PMA. Our data indicate that the cell does not simply turn the MMP genes on or off, as a group, in response to various agents, but that it has the capacity for fine control over which MMPs are expressed and the degree to which each is expressed. Changes in MMP protein expression induced by PMA treatment are correlated with changes in specific mRNA levels in passaged cultures. The kinetics of mRNA accumulation suggest that the MMP genes can respond to multiple intracellular signals initiated in a temporal cascade by PMA. It is the combined effects of the individual signals on the accumulation of specific mRNAs that must determine the ultimate pattern of MMP protein expression. The distinct patterns of MMP expression produced by primary and passaged cell cultures may be analogous to patterns of expression that might occur under particular in vivo conditions.

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