During cardiac myogenesis, ventricular muscle cells lose the capacity to proliferate soon after birth. It is unknown whether this developmental block to mitotic division and DNA replication might involve irreversible repression of the cellular oncogene c-myc. Ventricular myocytes from 2 d-old rats continued to differentiate in vitro during 15 d of mitogen withdrawal, as shown by the formation of cross-striations, increased proportion of the muscle isoenzyme of creatine kinase, stable expression of alpha-cardiac actin and myosin heavy chain mRNAs, and appropriate down-regulation of alpha-skeletal actin mRNA. After mitogen withdrawal for 2 d, serum evoked both DNA synthesis and mitotic division; after 7 d, DNA replication was uncoupled from cell division; after 15 d, DNA synthesis itself was markedly attentuated. These three distinct phenotypic states resemble the sequential properties of growth found in the neonatal rat heart in vivo. Despite failure to induce DNA replication or division after 15 d of mitogen withdrawal, serum elicited both c-myc and alpha-skeletal actin as found during hypertrophy of the intact heart. The results agree with previous evidence that one or more functional pathways that transduce the effects of serum factors may persist in older cardiac muscle cells, and indicate that irreversible down-regulation of c-myc cannot be the basis for the loss of growth responses.

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