The surrounding environment is vital for all living things. This is no different for cells, whose environment is known as the extracellular matrix. Just as a worm burrows through soil, as a gazelle leaps across a plain, or as I become diverted by the alluring smell of Italian cooking, cells interact physically and chemically with their surroundings. These interactions, via cell surface receptors, control what cells do next, how they grow and divide, and how healthy they remain.

Extracellular matrix networks // Image by Adam Byron

Cells are intimately linked to the extracellular matrix. They hold onto it, they tug it, they move through it. They can even produce their own matrix and reorganise it to suit their needs. But when these processes go wrong, a large number of different pathological conditions can result, from tissue scarring (fibrosis) to chronic inflammation to cancer. Mutations in individual extracellular matrix genes can cause a range of genetic disorders, such as chondrodysplasias, which disrupt cartilage development.

A key challenge in understanding the impact of the extracellular matrix on health and disease is working out how the composition and interactions of extracellular matrix molecules change under normal and pathological conditions. Proteomic approaches, which strive to analyse all proteins in a given sample, offer useful technologies to address such a challenge.

Our review article, published today online in the International Journal of Experimental Pathology, provides a survey of recent studies describing the isolation and proteomic analysis of extracellular matrix components. These studies range from analyses of purified molecules in vitro to cell culture models to tissue samples extracted from patients. We place the recent literature in the context of both disease biology and the technical bottlenecks that challenge the field.

Recent advances in the global analysis of the extracellular matrix move us closer to a comprehensive understanding of matrix regulation in health and disease. This offers the potential for better and more targeted therapies for extracellular matrix diseases in the future.

Funding: This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Citation: A Byron, JD Humphries, MJ Humphries, Defining the extracellular matrix using proteomics. Int. J. Exp. Pathol. 94, 75-92 (2013). DOI | PMID