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PLoS Biol. 2012 Jul;10(7):e1001361. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001361. Epub 2012 Jul 17.

Transport of fibroblast growth factor 2 in the pericellular matrix is controlled by the spatial distribution of its binding sites in heparan sulfate.

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Department of Structural and Chemical Biology, Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom.


The heparan sulfate (HS) chains of proteoglycans are a key regulatory component of the extracellular matrices of animal cells, including the pericellular matrix around the plasma membrane. In these matrices they regulate transport, gradient formation, and effector functions of over 400 proteins central to cell communication. HS from different matrices differs in its selectivity for its protein partners. However, there has been no direct test of how HS in the matrix regulates the transport of its partner proteins. We address this issue by single molecule imaging and tracking in fibroblast pericellular matrix of fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2), stoichiometrically labelled with small gold nanoparticles. Transmission electron microscopy and photothermal heterodyne imaging (PHI) show that the spatial distribution of the HS-binding sites for FGF2 in the pericellular matrix is heterogeneous over length scales ranging from 22 nm to several µm. Tracking of individual FGF2 by PHI in the pericellular matrix of living cells demonstrates that they undergo five distinct types of motion. They spend much of their time in confined motion (∼110 nm diameter), but they are not trapped and can escape by simple diffusion, which may be slow, fast, or directed. These substantial translocations (µm) cover distances far greater than the length of a single HS chain. Similar molecular motion persists in fixed cells, where the movement of membrane PGs is impeded. We conclude that FGF2 moves within the pericellular matrix by translocating from one HS-binding site to another. The binding sites on HS chains form non-random, heterogeneous networks. These promote FGF2 confinement or substantial translocation depending on their spatial organisation. We propose that this spatial organisation, coupled to the relative selectivity and the availability of HS-binding sites, determines the transport of FGF2 in matrices. Similar mechanisms are likely to underpin the movement of many other HS-binding effectors.

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