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J Biol Chem. 1998 Mar 27;273(13):7423-30.

The role of the alpha3(VI) chain in collagen VI assembly. Expression of an alpha3(VI) chain lacking N-terminal modules N10-N7 restores collagen VI assembly, secretion, and matrix deposition in an alpha3(VI)-deficient cell line.

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  • 1Orthopaedic Molecular Biology Research Unit, Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, Royal Children's Hospital, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia.


Collagen VI is a microfibrillar protein found in the extracellular matrix of virtually all connective tissues. Three genetically distinct subunits, the alpha1(VI), alpha2(VI), and alpha3(VI) chains, associate intracellularly to form triple-helical monomers, which then assemble into disulfide-bonded dimers and tetramers before secretion. Although sequence considerations suggest that collagen VI monomers composed of all three chains are the most stable isoform, the precise chain composition of collagen VI remains controversial and alternative assemblies containing only alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI) chains have also been proposed. To address this question directly and study the role of the alpha3(VI) chain in assembly, we have characterized collagen VI biosynthesis and in vitro matrix formation by a human osteosarcoma cell line (SaOS-2) that is deficient in alpha3(VI) production. Northern analysis showed an abundance of alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI) mRNAs, but no detectable alpha3(VI) mRNA was apparent in SaOS-2 cells. By day 30 of culture, however, small amounts of alpha3(VI) mRNA were detected, although the level of expression was still much less than alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI). Collagen VI protein was not detected in SaOS-2 medium or cell layer samples until day 30 of culture, demonstrating that despite the abundant synthesis of alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI), no stable collagen VI protein was produced without expression of alpha3(VI). The alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI) chains produced in the absence of alpha3(VI) were non-helical and were largely retained intracellularly and degraded. The critical role of the alpha3(VI) chain in collagen VI assembly was directly demonstrated after stable transfection of SaOS-2 cells with an alpha3(VI) cDNA expression construct that lacked 4 of the 10 N-terminal type A subdomains. The transfected alpha3(VI) N6-C5 chains associated with endogenous alpha1(VI) and alpha2(VI) and formed collagen VI dimers and tetramers, which were secreted and deposited into an extensive network in the extracellular matrix. These data demonstrated that alpha3(VI) is essential for the formation of stable collagen VI molecules and subdomains N10-N7 are not required for molecular assembly.

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