1. Hyaluronan from mesothelioma fluid, rooster comb and streptococci was examined by rotary shadowing and electron microscopy. All preparations showed extensive branched networks, but high-viscosity hyaluronan networks were essentially infinite, with no individual ‘molecules’ that were not integrated via multiple branched points into the meshwork. Low-viscosity hyaluronan, recovered after papain digestion of mesothelioma fluid, showed occasional single filaments that were independent of the main aggregates, some of which were themselves independent of other aggregates. 2. Hyaluronan is a polymer with a very marked capability to form meshworks at very low dilution (less than 1 microgram/ml). The longer the hyaluronan molecule, the more branching is potentially possible, and the more extensive and coherent is the network, with every hyaluronan molecule in contact with every other in the solution, via the network. This behaviour accounts for the mechanical properties of the soft tissues (e.g. vitreous humour) and fluids (e.g. synovial fluid) of which hyaluronan is a major component. 3. The hyaluronan twofold helix, previously demonstrated to be present in solution [Heatley & Scott (1988) Biochem. J. 254, 489-493] was shown by computer simulation and energy calculations to be sterically capable of extensive duplex formation, probably driven by interactions between the large hydrophobic patches on alternate sides of the tape-like polymer, forming stable aggregates at biological temperatures in water. This ‘stickiness’ is postulated to be the basis of the network-forming and laterally aggregating behaviour of hyaluronan. 4. The tertiary structures formed by hyaluronan may not be possible in the case of chondroitin 4-sulphate.

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