In cartilage collagen type XI exists as heterotrimeric molecules composed of alpha 1(XI), alpha 2(XI) and alpha 3(XI) subunits. Messenger RNAs for some of the alpha chains of collagen type XI have also been found in non-chondrogenic tissues but the chain composition of the molecule in these sites is not known. Some non-chondrogenic tissues also contain heterotrimers containing collagen alpha 2(V) and alpha 1(XI) chains. We have explored the possibility that collagen type XI could exist in differing trimeric forms in non-chondrogenic tissues and aimed to predict the subunit composition of this collagen in those tissues. The distribution and relative levels of expression of collagen alpha 1(XI), alpha 2(XI) and alpha 3(XI)/alpha 1(II) mRNAs in different human fetal tissues were studied. Expression of mRNAs for all three genes of collagen type XI is not restricted to cartilage but is widespread. However, in some non-chondrogenic tissues, the mRNAs for all three alpha chains of collagen type XI were not co-expressed, but collagen alpha 1(XI) and alpha 2(XI) mRNAs were found either singly or without collagen alpha 3(XI) transcripts. Collagen type XI may therefore exist as homotrimers and/or heterotrimers composed of two collagen alpha(XI) chains in some tissues. The distribution of mRNAs for collagen alpha 2(V) and alpha 1(I) were also studied. Co-expression of collagen type XI, alpha 2(V) and alpha 1(I) mRNAs was found for many tissues. These findings have implications for the possibility of additional chain associations for collagen types XI and V in cross-type heterotrimers within heterotypic fibrils.

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