In biology, the extracellular matrix (ECM) is a collection of extracellular molecules secreted by cells that provides structural and biochemical support to the surrounding cells. Because multicellularity evolved independently in different multicellular lineages, the composition of ECM varies between multicellular structures; however, cell adhesion, cell-to-cell communication and differentiation are common functions of the ECM. The animal extracellular matrix includes the interstitial matrix and the basement membrane. Interstitial matrix is present between various animal cells (i.e., in the intercellular spaces). Gels of polysaccharides and fibrous proteins fill the interstitial space and act as a compression buffer against the stress placed on the ECM. Basement membranes are sheet-like depositions of ECM on which various epithelial cells rest. Each type of connective tissue in animals has a type of ECM: collagen fibers and bone mineral comprise the ECM of bone tissue; reticular fibers and ground substance comprise the ECM of loose connective tissue; and blood plasma is the ECM of blood.
The extracellular matrix is directly connected to the cells it surrounds. Some of the key connectors are proteins called integrins, which are embedded in the plasma membrane. Proteins in the extracellular matrix, like the fibronectin molecules shown in green in the diagram above, can act as bridges between integrins and other extracellular matrix proteins such as collagen. On the inner side of the membrane, the integrins are linked to the cytoskeleton.
Blood clotting provides another example of communication between cells and the extracellular matrix. When the cells lining a blood vessel are damaged, they display a protein receptor called tissue factor. When tissue factor binds to a molecule present in the extracellular matrix, it triggers a range of responses that reduce blood loss. For instance, it causes platelets to stick to the wall of the damaged blood vessel and stimulates them to produce clotting factors.
The plant ECM includes cell wall components, like cellulose, in addition to more complex signaling molecules. Some single-celled organisms adopt multicelluar biofilms in which the cells are embedded in an ECM composed primarily of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS).
Due to its diverse nature and composition, the ECM can serve many functions, such as providing support, segregating tissues from one another, and regulating intercellular communication. The extracellular matrix regulates a cell's dynamic behavior. In addition, it sequesters a wide range of cellular growth factors and acts as a local store for them. Changes in physiological conditions can trigger protease activities that cause local release of such stores. This allows the rapid and local growth factor-mediated activation of cellular functions without de novo synthesis.
Formation of the extracellular matrix is essential for processes like growth, wound healing, and fibrosis. An understanding of ECM structure and composition also helps in comprehending the complex dynamics of tumor invasion and metastasis in cancer biology as metastasis often involves the destruction of extracellular matrix by enzymes such as serine proteases, threonine proteases, and matrix metalloproteinases.
The stiffness and elasticity of the ECM has important implications in cell migration, gene expression, and differentiation. Cells actively sense ECM rigidity and migrate preferentially towards stiffer surfaces in a phenomenon called durotaxis. They also detect elasticity and adjust their gene expression accordingly which has increasingly become a subject of research because of its impact on differentiation and cancer progression.
Components of the ECM are produced intracellularly by resident cells and secreted into the ECM via exocytosis. Once secreted, they then aggregate with the existing matrix. The ECM is composed of an interlocking mesh of fibrous proteins and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs).
Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are carbohydrate polymers and are usually attached to extracellular matrix proteins to form proteoglycans (hyaluronic acid is a notable exception, see below). Proteoglycans have a net negative charge that attracts positively charged sodium ions (Na+), which attracts water molecules via osmosis, keeping the ECM and resident cells hydrated. Proteoglycans may also help to trap and store growth factors within the ECM.
Described below are the different types of proteoglycan found within the extracellular matrix.
Heparan sulfate (HS) is a linear polysaccharide found in all animal tissues. It occurs as a proteoglycan (PG) in which two or three HS chains are attached in close proximity to cell surface or ECM proteins. It is in this form that HS binds to a variety of protein ligands and regulates a wide variety of biological activities, including developmental processes, angiogenesis, blood coagulation, and tumour metastasis.
In the extracellular matrix, especially basement membranes, the multi-domain proteins perlecan, agrin, and collagen XVIII are the main proteins to which heparan sulfate is attached.
Chondroitin sulfates contribute to the tensile strength of cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and walls of the aorta. They have also been known to affect neuroplasticity.
Keratan sulfates have a variable sulfate content and, unlike many other GAGs, do not contain uronic acid. They are present in the cornea, cartilage, bones, and the horns of animals.