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As may be obvious from its name, one of the major functions of connective tissue is to connect tissues and organs. Unlike epithelial tissue, which is composed of cells closely packed with little or no extracellular space in between, connective tissue cells are dispersed in a matrix. The matrix usually includes a large amount of extracellular material produced by the connective tissue cells that are embedded within it. The matrix plays a major role in the functioning of this tissue. The major component of the matrix is a ground substance often crisscrossed by protein fibers. This ground substance is usually a fluid, but it can also be mineralized and solid, as in bones. Connective tissues come in a vast variety of forms, yet they typically have in common three characteristic components: cells, large amounts of amorphous ground substance, and protein fibers. The amount and structure of each component correlates with the function of the tissue, from the rigid ground substance in bones supporting the body to the inclusion of specialized cells; for example, a phagocytic cell that engulfs pathogens and also rids tissue of cellular debris.
Connective tissues perform many functions in the body, but most importantly, they support and connect other tissues; from the connective tissue sheath that surrounds muscle cells, to the tendons that attach muscles to bones, and to the skeleton that supports the positions of the body. Protection is another major function of connective tissue, in the form of fibrous capsules and bones that protect delicate organs and, of course, the skeletal system. Specialized cells in connective tissue defend the body from microorganisms that enter the body. Transport of fluid, nutrients, waste, and chemical messengers is ensured by specialized fluid connective tissues, such as blood and lymph. Adipose cells store surplus energy in the form of fat and contribute to the thermal insulation of the body.
All connective tissues derive from the mesodermal layer of the embryo (see [link]). The first connective tissue to develop in the embryo is mesenchyme, the stem cell line from which all connective tissues are later derived. Clusters of mesenchymal cells are scattered throughout adult tissue and supply the cells needed for replacement and repair after a connective tissue injury. A second type of embryonic connective tissue forms in the umbilical cord, called mucous connective tissue or Wharton’s jelly. This tissue is no longer present after birth, leaving only scattered mesenchymal cells throughout the body.
The three broad categories of connective tissue are classified according to the characteristics of their ground substance and the types of fibers found within the matrix (Table). Connective tissue proper includes loose connective tissue and dense connective tissue. Both tissues have a variety of cell types and protein fibers suspended in a viscous ground substance. Dense connective tissue is reinforced by bundles of fibers that provide tensile strength, elasticity, and protection. In loose connective tissue, the fibers are loosely organized, leaving large spaces in between. Supportive connective tissue—bone and cartilage—provide structure and strength to the body and protect soft tissues. A few distinct cell types and densely packed fibers in a matrix characterize these tissues. In bone, the matrix is rigid and described as calcified because of the deposited calcium salts. In fluid connective tissue, in other words, lymph and blood, various specialized cells circulate in a watery fluid containing salts, nutrients, and dissolved proteins.
Table 1: Connective Tissue Examples
|Connective tissue proper||Supportive connective tissue||Fluid connective tissue|
Loose connective tissue
Dense connective tissue
Fibroblasts are present in all connective tissue proper (Figure 1). Fibrocytes, adipocytes, and mesenchymal cells are fixed cells, which means they remain within the connective tissue. Other cells move in and out of the connective tissue in response to chemical signals. Macrophages, mast cells, lymphocytes, plasma cells, and phagocytic cells are found in connective tissue proper but are actually part of the immune system protecting the body.
Dense Connective Tissue
Two major forms of supportive connective tissue, cartilage and bone, allow the body to maintain its posture and protect internal organs.
The distinctive appearance of cartilage is due to polysaccharides called chondroitin sulfates, which bind with ground substance proteins to form proteoglycans. Embedded within the cartilage matrix are chondrocytes, or cartilage cells, and the space they occupy are called lacunae (singular = lacuna). A layer of dense irregular connective tissue, the perichondrium, encapsulates the cartilage. Cartilaginous tissue is avascular, thus all nutrients need to diffuse through the matrix to reach the chondrocytes. This is a factor contributing to the very slow healing of cartilaginous tissues.
The three main types of cartilage tissue are hyaline cartilage, fibrocartilage, and elastic cartilage (Figure 5). Hyaline cartilage, the most common type of cartilage in the body, consists of short and dispersed collagen fibers and contains large amounts of proteoglycans. Under the microscope, tissue samples appear clear. The surface of hyaline cartilage is smooth. Both strong and flexible, it is found in the rib cage and nose and covers bones where they meet to form moveable joints. It makes up a template of the embryonic skeleton before bone formation. A plate of hyaline cartilage at the ends of bone allows continued growth until adulthood. Fibrocartilage is tough because it has thick bundles of collagen fibers dispersed through its matrix. Menisci in the knee joint and the intervertebral discs are examples of fibrocartilage. Elastic cartilage contains elastic fibers as well as collagen and proteoglycans. This tissue gives rigid support as well as elasticity. Tug gently at your ear lobes, and notice that the lobes return to their initial shape. The external ear contains elastic cartilage.
Bone is the hardest connective tissue. It provides protection to internal organs and supports the body. Bone’s rigid extracellular matrix contains mostly collagen fibers embedded in a mineralized ground substance containing hydroxyapatite, a form of calcium phosphate. Both components of the matrix, organic and inorganic, contribute to the unusual properties of bone. Without collagen, bones would be brittle and shatter easily. Without mineral crystals, bones would flex and provide little support. Osteocytes, bone cells like chondrocytes, are located within lacunae. The histology of transverse tissue from long bone shows a typical arrangement of osteocytes in concentric circles around a central canal. Bone is a highly vascularized tissue. Unlike cartilage, bone tissue can recover from injuries in a relatively short time.
Cancellous bone looks like a sponge under the microscope and contains empty spaces between trabeculae, or arches of bone proper. It is lighter than compact bone and found in the interior of some bones and at the end of long bones. Compact bone is solid and has greater structural strength.
Blood and lymph are fluid connective tissues. Cells circulate in a liquid extracellular matrix. The formed elements circulating in blood are all derived from hematopoietic stem cells located in bone marrow (Figure 6). Erythrocytes, red blood cells, transport oxygen and some carbon dioxide. Leukocytes, white blood cells, are responsible for defending against potentially harmful microorganisms or molecules. Platelets are cell fragments involved in blood clotting. Some white blood cells have the ability to cross the endothelial layer that lines blood vessels and enter adjacent tissues. Nutrients, salts, and wastes are dissolved in the liquid matrix and transported through the body.
Lymph contains a liquid matrix and white blood cells. Lymphatic capillaries are extremely permeable, allowing larger molecules and excess fluid from interstitial spaces to enter the lymphatic vessels. Lymph drains into blood vessels, delivering molecules to the blood that could not otherwise directly enter the bloodstream. In this way, specialized lymphatic capillaries transport absorbed fats away from the intestine and deliver these molecules to the blood.
Connective tissue is a heterogeneous tissue with many cell shapes and tissue architecture. Structurally, all connective tissues contain cells that are embedded in an extracellular matrix stabilized by proteins. The chemical nature and physical layout of the extracellular matrix and proteins vary enormously among tissues, reflecting the variety of functions that connective tissue fulfills in the body. Connective tissues separate and cushion organs, protecting them from shifting or traumatic injury. Connect tissues provide support and assist movement, store and transport energy molecules, protect against infections, and contribute to temperature homeostasis.
Many different cells contribute to the formation of connective tissues. They originate in the mesodermal germ layer and differentiate from mesenchyme and hematopoietic tissue in the bone marrow. Fibroblasts are the most abundant and secrete many protein fibers, adipocytes specialize in fat storage, hematopoietic cells from the bone marrow give rise to all the blood cells, chondrocytes form cartilage, and osteocytes form bone. The extracellular matrix contains fluid, proteins, polysaccharide derivatives, and, in the case of bone, mineral crystals. Protein fibers fall into three major groups: collagen fibers that are thick, strong, flexible, and resist stretch; reticular fibers that are thin and form a supportive mesh; and elastin fibers that are thin and elastic.
The major types of connective tissue are connective tissue proper, supportive tissue, and fluid tissue. Loose connective tissue proper includes adipose tissue, areolar tissue, and reticular tissue. These serve to hold organs and other tissues in place and, in the case of adipose tissue, isolate and store energy reserves. The matrix is the most abundant feature for loose tissue although adipose tissue does not have much extracellular matrix. Dense connective tissue proper is richer in fibers and may be regular, with fibers oriented in parallel as in ligaments and tendons, or irregular, with fibers oriented in several directions. Organ capsules (collagenous type) and walls of arteries (elastic type) contain dense irregular connective tissue. Cartilage and bone are supportive tissue. Cartilage contains chondrocytes and is somewhat flexible. Hyaline cartilage is smooth and clear, covers joints, and is found in the growing portion of bones. Fibrocartilage is tough because of extra collagen fibers and forms, among other things, the intervertebral discs. Elastic cartilage can stretch and recoil to its original shape because of its high content of elastic fibers. The matrix contains very few blood vessels. Bones are made of a rigid, mineralized matrix containing calcium salts, crystals, and osteocytes lodged in lacunae. Bone tissue is highly vascularized. Cancellous bone is spongy and less solid than compact bone. Fluid tissue, for example blood and lymph, is characterized by a liquid matrix and no supporting fibers.
1. Connective tissue is made of which three essential components?
2. Under the microscope, a tissue specimen shows cells located in spaces scattered in a transparent background. This is probably ________.
3. Which connective tissue specializes in storage of fat?
4. Ligaments connect bones together and withstand a lot of stress. What type of connective tissue should you expect ligaments to contain?
5. In adults, new connective tissue cells originate from the ________.
6. In bone, the main cells are ________.
1. One of the main functions of connective tissue is to integrate organs and organ systems in the body. Discuss how blood fulfills this role.
2. Why does an injury to cartilage, especially hyaline cartilage, heal much more slowly than a bone fracture?