Fibril-forming collagens are synthesized in precursor form, procollagens, with N- and C-terminal propeptide extensions. The C-propeptides direct chain association during intracellular assembly of the procollagen molecule from its three constituent polypeptide chains. Following or during secretion into the extracellular matrix, propeptides are cleaved by specific procollagen proteinases, thereby triggering fibril formation. The recent determination of the low-resolution structure of the C-propeptide trimer gives insights into the mechanism of procollagen chain association. In the extracellular matrix, the procollagen C-propeptides ensure procollagen solubility, while persistence of the N-propeptides controls fibril shape. Mechanisms for the control of fibril diameter are reviewed in terms of the radial packing model for collagen fibril structure. Finally, procollagen molecules have recently been shown to undergo liquid crystalline ordering in solution, prior to fibril assembly. This may provide an explanation for the liquid crystal-like suprafibrillar architectures of different connective tissues. (c) 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).