Introduction

The development and maintenance of tissues in vivo is acutely dependent on the ability of cells to form connections with substrates and neighboring cells. The formation of intimate contacts with various substrates provides sites of attachment and the scaffolding necessary for cells to communicate and develop cooperative function. These substrates, or attachment factors, include extracellular matrix (ECM) and basement membrane molecules such as collagen, laminin, fibronectin, and vitronectin. Additional substrates include proteins expressed on the surface of cells that function as attachment factors and mediate cell-cell interactions. Cell culture provides a powerful tool with which to identify attachment factors involved in cellular adhesion and to define the molecular mechanisms regulating cell adhesion. Additionally, in vitro approaches play a key role in the identification and cloning of specific attachment factor receptors. The cloning and characterization of attachment factor receptors has forced us to redefine the role of attachment factors in cellular functions. Growing in vitro evidence, combined with in vivo studies, make it clear that attachment factors serve not only as molecular scaffolds to support cell attachment and movement, but also as signaling molecules that play pivotal roles in regulating numerous cellular functions including growth, activation, differentiation, and death.

I review here the ECM molecules that are widely used as attachment factors in culture and illustrate ways in which attachment factors regulate cellular function. Additionally, cell surface molecules that serve as attachment factors and facilitate cell-cell interactions in vivo are also reviewed.

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