Nuclei pulposi were dissected from lumbar discs of radiologically normal human spines of cadavers aged 17, 20 and 21 years. Proteoglycans were extracted with 4 M guanidine hydrochloride (dissociative conditions) with proteinase inhibitors and isolated as A1 fractions by associative density-gradient centrifugation. Aggregating and non-aggregating proteoglycans were separated by Sepharose 2B chromatography. Both aggregating and non-aggregating proteoglycans contained a keratan sulphate-rich region as isolated by chondroitinase/trypsin/chymotrypsin digestion and Sepharose CL-6B chromatography. Agarose/acrylamide-gel electrophoresis of individual fractions of a Bio-Gel A-50m dissociative-column separation of the aggregating proteoglycans revealed two, well-separated bands: S and F, the slower and faster migrating bands respectively. The non-aggregating proteoglycan fractions were eluted under associative conditions (0.5 M-sodium acetate, pH 6.8) and migrated as a single band in the electrophoretic system. The gel-electrophoretic heterogeneity of the aggregating proteoglycans was still evident after hydroxylamine fragmentation and removal of the hyaluronate-binding portion of the molecule. Dissociative density-gradient centrifugation of the aggregating proteoglycans partially separated the Band-S proteoglycans from the Band-F population. Subsequent dissociative chromatography of the high-buoyant-density Band F proteoglycans permitted discrimination of this band into two gel-electrophoresis-distinguishable populations (Bands F-1 and F-2). Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays with a monoclonal antibody that recognized keratan sulphate demonstrated that the D1 fraction containing the Band F-1 proteoglycans was enriched in keratan sulphate compared with the total aggregating or non-aggregating pool of proteoglycans. The proteoglycans of young adult nucleus pulposus could then be ascribed to one of four structurally and/or electrophoretically distinct populations: (1) the non-aggregating population, which comprised about 70% of the total extractable proteoglycans; (2) the aggregating pool, comprising: (a) Band F-1 proteoglycans, which had a relatively large hydrodynamic size, uronate/protein weight ratio, were enriched in keratan sulphate and had a high buoyant density; (b) Band S proteoglycans, which migrated slower in agarose/acrylamide gels, had a smaller hydrodynamic size, lower buoyant density and a lower uronate/protein ratio than the Band F-1 population; (c) Band F-2 proteoglycans, which were lower in buoyant density, smaller in hydrodynamic size and slightly faster in electrophoretic mobility than the Band F-1 proteoglycans.

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