Fibrillin is the principal structural component of the 10-12 nm diameter elastic microfibrils of the extracellular matrix. We have previously shown that both fibrillin molecules and assembled microfibrils are susceptible to degradation by serine proteases. In this study, we have investigated the potential catabolic effects of six matrix metalloproteinases (MMP-2, MMP-3, MMP-9, MMP-12, MMP-13 and MMP-14) on fibrillin molecules and on intact fibrillin-rich microfibrils isolated from ciliary zonules. Using newly synthesized recombinant fibrillin molecules, major cleavage sites within fibrillin-1 were identified. In particular, the six different MMPs generated a major degradation product of ~ 45 kDa from the N-terminal region of the molecule, whereas treatment of truncated, unprocessed and furin-processed C-termini also generated large degradation products. Introduction of a single ectopia lentis-causing amino acid substitution (E2447K; one-letter symbols for amino acids) in a calcium-binding epidermal growth factor-like domain, predicted to disrupt calcium binding, markedly altered the pattern of C-terminal fibrillin-1 degradation. However, the fragmentation pattern of a mutant fibrillin-1 with a comparable E → K substitution in an upstream calcium-binding epidermal growth factor-like domain was indistinguishable from wild-type molecules. Ultrastructural examination highlighted that fibrillin-rich microfibrils isolated from ciliary zonules were grossly disrupted by MMPs. This is the first demonstration that fibrillin molecules and fibrillin-rich microfibrils are degraded by MMPs and that certain amino acid substitutions change the fragmentation patterns. These studies have important implications for physiological and pathological fibrillin catabolism and for loss of connective tissue elasticity in ageing and disease.

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