Fibrillar fibronectin plays a key role as nucleator of collagen I polymerization during macromolecular crowding-enhanced matrix assembly†
Macromolecular crowding is used by tissue engineers to accelerate extracellular matrix assembly in vitro, however, most mechanistic studies focus on the impact of crowding on collagen fiber assembly and largely ignore the highly abundant provisional matrix protein fibronectin. We show that the accelerated collagen I assembly as induced by the neutral crowding molecule Ficoll is regulated by cell access to fibronectin. Ficoll treatment leads to significant increases in the amount of surface adherent fibronectin, which can readily be harvested by cells to speed up fibrillogenesis. FRET studies reveal that Ficoll crowding also upregulates the total amount of fibronectin fibers in a low-tension state through upregulating fibronectin assembly. Since un-stretched fibronectin fibers have more collagen binding sites to nucleate the onset of collagen fibrillogenesis, our data suggest that the Ficoll-induced upregulation of low-tension fibronectin fibers contributes to enhanced collagen assembly in crowded conditions. In contrast, chemical cross-linking of fibronectin to the glass substrate prior to cell seeding prevents early force mediated fibronectin harvesting from the substrate and suppresses upregulation of collagen I assembly in the presence of Ficoll, even though the crowded environment is known to drive enzymatic cleavage of procollagen and collagen fiber formation. To show that our findings can be exploited for tissue engineering applications, we demonstrate that the addition of supplemental fibronectin in the form of an adsorbed coating markedly improves the speed of tissue formation under crowding conditions.