The main function of fibroblasts is to maintain the structural integrity of connective tissues by continuously secreting precursors of the extracellular matrix. Fibroblasts secrete the precursors of all the components of the extracellular matrix, primarily the ground substance and a variety of fibres. The composition of the extracellular matrix determines the physical properties of connective tissues.
Like other cells of connective tissue, fibroblasts are derived from primitive mesenchyme. Thus they express the intermediate filament protein vimentin, a feature used as a marker to distinguish their mesodermal origin. However, this test is not specific as epithelial cells cultured in vitro on adherent substratum may also express vimentin after some time.
In certain situations epithelial cells can give rise to fibroblasts, a process called epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT).
Conversely, fibroblasts in some situations may give rise to epithelia by undergoing a mesenchymal to epithelial transition (MET) and organizing into a condensed, polarized, laterally connected true epithelial sheet. This process is seen in many developmental situations (e.g. nephron and notocord development).
Fibroblasts have a branched cytoplasm surrounding an elliptical, speckled nucleus having one or two nucleoli. Active fibroblasts can be recognized by their abundant rough endoplasmic reticulum. Inactive fibroblasts, which are also called fibrocytes, are smaller and spindle shaped. They have a reduced rough endoplasmic reticulum. Although disjointed and scattered when they have to cover a large space, fibroblasts when crowded often locally align in parallel clusters.
Fibroblasts make collagens, glycosaminoglycans, reticular and elastic fibers, and glycoproteins found in the extracellular matrix. Growing individuals' fibroblasts are dividing and synthesizing ground substance. Tissue damage stimulates fibrocytes and induces the mitosis of fibroblasts.
Unlike the epithelial cells lining the body structures, fibroblasts do not form flat monolayers and are not restricted by a polarizing attachment to a basal lamina on one side, although they may contribute to basal lamina components in some situations (e.g. subepithelial myofibroblasts in intestine may secrete the α-2 chain carrying component of the laminin which is absent only in regions of follicle associated epithelia which lack the myofibroblast lining). Fibroblasts can also migrate slowly over substratum as individual cells, again in contrast to epithelial cells. While epithelial cells form the lining of body structures, it is fibroblasts and related connective tissues which sculpt the "bulk" of an organism.
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