Growth cones, the motile apparatus at the ends of elongating axons, are sites of extensive and dynamic membrane-cytoskeletal interaction and insertion of new membrane into the growing axon. One of the most abundant proteins in growth cone membranes is a protein designated GAP-43, whose synthesis increases dramatically in most neurons during periods of axon development or regeneration. We have begun to explore the role of GAP-43 in growth cone membrane functions by asking how the protein interacts with those membranes. Membrane-washing experiments indicate that mature GAP-43 is tightly bound to growth cone membranes, and partitioning of Triton X-114-solubilized GAP-43 between detergent-enriched and detergent-depleted phases indicates considerable hydrophobicity. The hydrophobic behavior of the protein is modulated by divalent cations, particularly zinc and calcium. In vivo labeling of GAP-43 in neonatal rat brain with [35S]methionine shows that GAP-43 is initially synthesized as a soluble protein that becomes attached to membranes posttranslationally. In tissue culture, both rat cerebral cortex cells and neuron-like PC12 cells actively incorporate [3H]palmitic acid into GAP-43. Isolated growth cones detached from their cell bodies also incorporate labeled fatty acid into GAP-43, suggesting active turnover of the fatty acid moieties on the mature protein. Hydrolysis of ester-like bonds with neutral hydroxylamine removes the bound fatty acid and exposes new thiol groups on GAP-43, suggesting that fatty acid is attached to the protein's only two cysteine residues, located in a short hydrophobic domain at the amino terminus. Modulation of the protein's hydrophobic behavior by divalent cations suggests that other domains, containing large numbers of negatively charged residues, might also contribute to GAP-43-membrane interactions. Our observations suggest a dynamic and reversible interaction of GAP-43 with growth cone membranes.

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