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Soo-Hyun Kim, Jeremy Turnbull and Scott Guimond

Extracellular matrices (ECM) are secreted molecules that constitute the cell microenvironment, composed of a dynamic and complex array of glycoproteins, collagens, glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans. ECM provides the bulk, shape and strength of many tissues in vivo, such as basement membrane, bone and cartilage. In vitro, most animal cells can only grow when they are attached to surfaces through ECM. ECM is also the substrate for cell migration. However, ECM provides much more than just mechanical and structural support, with implications in developmental patterning, stem cell niches and cancer. ECM imparts spatial context for signalling events by various cell surface growth factor receptors and adhesion molecules such as integrins. The external physical properties of ECM may also have a role in the signalling process. ECM molecules can be flexible and extendable, and mechanical tension can expose cryptic sites, which could further interact with growth factors or their receptors. ECM proteins and structures can determine the cell behaviour, polarity, migration, differentiation, proliferation and survival by communicating with the intracellular cytoskeleton and transmission of growth factor signals. Integrins and proteoglycans are the major ECM adhesion receptors which cooperate in signalling events, determining the signalling outcomes, and thus the cell fate. This review focuses on the emerging concept of spatial cell biology of ECM, especially the current understanding of integrins and heparan sulphate proteoglycans as the essential cellular machineries that sense, integrate and respond to the physical and chemical environmental information either by directly connecting with the local adhesion sites or by regulating global cellular processes through growth factor receptor signalling pathways, leading to the integration of both external and internal signals in space and time.