Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) epithelial cells exhibit a polarized distribution of membrane proteins between the apical and basolateral domains of the plasma membrane. We have initiated studies to investigate whether the spectrin-based membrane skeleton plays a role in the establishment and maintenance of these membrane domains. MDCK cells express an isoform of spectrin composed of two subunits, Mr 240,000 (alpha-subunit) and Mr 235,000 (gamma-subunit). This isoform is immunologically and structurally related to fodrin in lens and brain cells, which is a functional and structural analog of alpha beta-spectrin, the major component of the erythrocyte membrane skeleton. Analysis of fodrin in MDCK cells by immunoblotting, immunofluorescence, and metabolic labeling revealed significant changes in the biophysical properties, subcellular distribution, steady-state levels, and turnover of the protein during development of a continuous monolayer of cells. The changes in the cellular organization of fodrin did not appear to coincide with the distributions of microfilaments, microtubules, or intermediate filaments. These changes result in the formation of a highly insoluble, relatively dense and stable layer of fodrin which appears to be localized to the cell periphery and predominantly in the region of the basolateral plasma membrane of MDCK cells in continuous monolayers. The formation of this structure coincides temporally and spatially with extensive cell-cell contact, and with the development of the polarized distribution of the Na+, K+-ATPase, a marker protein of the basolateral plasma membrane.

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