The collagen framework of the intervertebral disc contains two major fibril-forming collagens, types I and II. Smaller amounts of other types of collagen are also present. On examination of the nature and distribution of these minor collagens within bovine disc tissue, type VI collagen was found to be unusually abundant. It accounted for about 20% of the total collagen in calf nucleus pulposus, and about 5% in the annulus fibrosus. It was discovered by serially digesting disc tissue with chondroitin ABC lyase and Streptomyces hyaluronidase that native covalent polymers of type VI collagen could be extracted. Electron micrographs of this material prepared by rotary shadowing revealed the characteristic dimensions of tetramers and double tetramers of type VI molecules, with their central rods and terminal globular domains. Molecular-sieve column chromatography on agarose under non-reducing non-denaturing conditions gave a series of protein peaks with molecular sizes equivalent to the tetramer, double tetramer and higher multimers. On SDS/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis after disulphide cleavage, these fractions of type VI collagen all showed a main band at Mr 140,000 and four lesser bands between Mr 180,000 and 240,000. On electrophoresis without disulphide cleavage in agarose/2.4% polyacrylamide only dimeric (six chains) and tetrameric (12 chains) forms of type VI molecules were present. The ability to extract all the type VI collagen of the tissue in 4 M-guanidinium chloride, and absence of aldehyde-mediated cross-linking residues on direct analysis, showed that, in contrast with most matrix collagens, type VI collagen does not function as a covalently cross-linked structural polymer.

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