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INTRODUCTION

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Connective tissue provides a matrix that supports and physically connects other tissues and cells together to form the organs of the body. The interstitial fluid of connective tissue gives metabolic support to cells as the medium for diffusion of nutrients and waste products.

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Unlike the other tissue types (epithelium, muscle, and nerve), which consist mainly of cells, the major constituent of connective tissue is the extracellular matrix (ECM). Extracellular matrices consist of different combinations of protein fibers (collagen and elastic fibers) and ground substance. Ground substance is a complex of anionic, hydrophilic proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), and multiadhesive glycoproteins (laminin, fibronectin, and others). As described briefly in Chapter 4 with the basal lamina, such glycoproteins help stabilize the ECM by binding to other matrix components and to integrins in cell membranes. Water within this ground substance allows the exchange of nutrients and metabolic wastes between cells and the blood supply.

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The variety of connective tissue types in the body reflects differences in composition and amount of the cells, fibers, and ground substance which together are responsible for the remarkable structural, functional, and pathologic diversity of connective tissue.

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All connective tissues originate from embryonic mesenchyme, a tissue developing mainly from the middle layer of the embryo, the mesoderm. Mesenchyme consists largely of viscous ground substance with few collagen fibers (Figure 5–1). Mesenchymal cells are undifferentiated and have large nuclei, with prominent nucleoli and fine chromatin. They are often said to be “spindle-shaped,” with their scant cytoplasm extended as two or more thin cytoplasmic processes. Mesodermal cells migrate from their site of origin in the embryo, surrounding and penetrating developing organs. In addition to producing all types of connective tissue proper and the specialized connective tissues bone and cartilage, the embryonic mesenchyme includes stem cells for other tissues such as blood, the vascular endothelium, and muscle. This chapter describes the features of soft, supportive connective tissue proper.

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FIGURE 5–1

Embryonic mesenchyme.

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Mesenchyme consists of a population of undifferentiated cells, generally elongated but with many shapes, having large euchromatic nuclei and prominent nucleoli that indicate high levels of synthetic activity. These cells are called mesenchymal cells. Mesenchymal cells are surrounded by an ECM that they produced and that consists largely of a simple ground substance rich in hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid), but with very little collagen. (X200; Mallory trichrome)

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MEDICAL APPLICATION

Some cells in mesenchyme are multipotent stem cells potentially useful in regenerative medicine after grafting to replace damaged tissue in certain patients. Mesenchyme-like cells remain present in some adult connective tissues, including that of tooth pulp and some adipose tissue, and are being investigated as possible sources of stem cells for therapeutic repair and organ regeneration.

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CELLS OF CONNECTIVE TISSUE

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Fibroblasts are the key cells in ...

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