Ultrastructural study of tension and pressure zones in a rabbit flexor tendon



The flexor digitorum profundus tendon of the rabbit hind limb is subject to tensional forces throughout most of its length but, within a localised area which is in contact with the calcaneum and talus, it is subjected to additional compressive forces. This pressure-bearing area, in marked contrast to the tensional areas, has a fibrocartilage-like organization and a high concentration of glycosaminoglycans (GAG).

Ultrastructural features of the cells, collagen and matrix in the tension and pressure zones are also markedly different, with a full spectrum of transitional characteristics in the junctional region between the two zones. These findings support the concept that the cells in the various regions are sensitive and responsive to changes in physical load.

In the tensional zone, elongated cells have extensive cytoplasmic flanges, which may contact flanges of neighbouring cells, and a scalloped cell surface that intimately conforms to the adjacent positively charged and tightly packed collagen fibrils of long periodicity (63 nm) and varying diameters. In the pressure zone, round and clustered fibrocartilage-like cells, characterized by dense arrays of 11-nm-diameter microfilaments and numerous lipid droplets, are surrounded by loosely packed collagen fibrils of short periodicity (53 nm) and predominantly small diameters, and an extensive matrix rich in GAG.

It is suggested that these regional morphological variations in the extracellular components result from, and are indirectly the cause of, changes in the cellular synthetic activities which are known to occur in response to changes in the physical environment.