Procollagen assembly is initiated within the endoplasmic reticulum by three α-chains associating via their C-propeptides (C-terminal propeptides). To study the requirements for the association of procollagen monomers at synthesis we have reconstituted the initial stages in the folding, assembly and modification of procollagen using semi-permeabilized cells. By translating a type-III procollagen ‘mini-gene’ which lacks part of the triple-helical domain, we demonstrate that these cells efficiently carry out the assembly of hydroxylated, triple-helical, procollagen trimers and allow the identification of specific disulphide-bonded intermediates in the folding pathway. Mutant chains, which lack the ability to form inter-chain disulphide bonds within the C-propeptide, were still able to assemble within this system. Furthermore, characterization of the trimeric molecules formed suggested that inter-chain disulphide bonds had formed within the C-telopeptide (C-terminal telopeptide). However, when hydroxylation of prolyl and lysyl residues was inhibited no inter-chain disulphide bonds were formed in the C-telopeptide, indicating that hydroxylation is required for the initial nucleation of the triple-helical domain. Mutant chains which lacked the ability to form inter-chain disulphide bonds within the C-propeptide or the C-telopeptide could still assemble to form trimeric triple-helical molecules linked by inter-chain disulphide bonds within the N-propeptide (N-terminal propeptide). These results indicate that inter-chain disulphide bond formation within the C-propeptide or the C-telopeptide is not required for chain association and triple-helix formation.

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