PURPOSE The stroma of the developing cornea is a highly organized extracellular matrix formed essentially by uniform, small-diameter collagen fibrils with constant interfibrillar spacing. Unlike the fibrillogenesis of chicken cornea, the assembly and maturation of human corneal fibrils have been poorly investigated. In the current study, the authors aimed to ascertain the heterotypic organization (collagens I and V) of the human corneal fibrils at the supramolecular level. To gain more insight into the molecular structure of collagen V, its cellular source, and its role in fibrillogenesis, the authors used cultured human corneal fibroblasts. METHODS The structure of human corneal stroma after brief homogenization of the tissue was analyzed by immunogold labeling using specific polyclonal antibodies and rotary shadowing. Biochemical, electron microscopic, and immunolabeling approaches were used to investigate the collagen fibril formation and the extracellular matrix synthesis using human corneal fibroblasts grown in culture as a model system. RESULTS The authors showed that in human corneal stroma, collagen I is distributed uniformly along the striated fibrils, in contrast to collagen V, which could be identified only at sites at which the fibrils partially were disrupted. Rotary shadowing observations of the homogenate revealed that collagen VI, a major component of the human cornea, was associated closely with the collagen fibril surface. Corneal fibroblasts synthesize and deposit a collagenous matrix with fibrils resembling those of the human cornea in appearance and collagen composition. Biochemical data indicate that a high concentration (20% to 30%) of collagen V is synthesized by stromal fibroblasts and that collagen V molecules are processed similarly to matrix forms in which the extension peptides are retained on the molecules. CONCLUSIONS The heterotypic nature (collagens I and V) of human corneal fibrils was determined. Results indicate that human corneal fibroblasts synthesize the major collagen types in human cornea (collagens I, V, and VI) and express all the posttranslational equipment for correct collagen molecular assembly and processing in a manner that closely resembles the situation in situ, offering the opportunity for more detailed study of this process, which is essential for optical transparency.