The vitreous gel is a transparent extracellular matrix that fills the cavity behind the lens of the eye and is surrounded by and attached to the retina. This gel liquefies during ageing and in 25-30% of the population the residual gel structure eventually collapses away from the posterior retina in a process called posterior vitreous detachment. This process plays a pivotal role in a number of common blinding conditions including rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, proliferative diabetic retinopathy and macular hole formation. In order to understand the molecular events underlying vitreous liquefaction and posterior vitreous detachment and to develop new therapies it is important to understand the molecular basis of normal vitreous gel structure and how this is altered during ageing. It has previously been established that a dilute dispersion of thin (heterotypic) collagen fibrils is essential to the gel structure and that age-related vitreous liquefaction is intimately related to a process whereby these collagen fibrils aggregate. Collagen fibrils have a natural tendency to aggregate so a key question that has to be addressed is: what normally maintains the spacing of the collagen fibrils? In mammalian vitreous a network of hyaluronan normally fills the spaces between these collagen fibrils. This hyaluronan network can be removed without destroying the gel structure, so the hyaluronan is not essential for maintaining the spacing of the collagen fibrils although it probably does increase the mechanical resilience of the gel. The thin heterotypic collagen fibrils have a coating of non-covalently bound macromolecules which, along with the surface features of the collagen fibrils themselves, probably play a fundamental role in maintaining gel stability. They are likely to both maintain the short-range spacing of vitreous collagen fibrils and to link the fibrils together to form a contiguous network. A collagen fibril-associated macromolecule that may contribute to the maintenance of short-range spacing is opticin, a newly discovered extracellular matrix leucine-rich repeat protein. In addition, surface features of the collagen fibrils such as the chondroitin sulphate glycosaminoglycan chains of type IX collagen proteoglycan may also play an important role in maintaining fibril spacing. Furthering our knowledge of these and other components related to the surface of the heterotypic collagen fibrils will allow us to make important strides in understanding the macromolecular organisation of this unique and fascinating tissue. In addition, it will open up new therapeutic opportunities as it will allow the development of therapeutic reagents that can be used to modulate vitreous gel structure and thus treat a number of common, potentially blinding, ocular conditions. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.