Full length cDNAs for a variety of human N-CAM isoforms have been transfected into mouse L-cells and/or 3T3 cells. Three independent clones of each cell line that were shown to express human N-CAM were tested for their ability to support the morphological differentiation of sensory neurons. The cell surface expression of N-CAM isoforms, linked to the membrane directly by an integral transmembrane spanning domain or indirectly via covalent attachment to a glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol moiety, were consistently found to be associated with a significant increase in the morphological differentiation of both human and rat dorsal root ganglion neurons. Modification of the extracellular structure of both classes of N-CAM, consequent to the expression of a glycosylated 37-amino acid sequence normally found expressed exclusively in muscle N-CAM isoforms did not obviously affect the ability of transfected cells to support increased neuronal differentiation. 3T3 cells that were transfected with a full length cDNA encoding a secreted N-CAM isoform, and that have previously been shown to secrete N-CAM into the growth media rather than link it to the membrane did not significantly differ from control cells in their ability to support neuronal differentiation. These data provide direct evidence for both transmembrane and lipid-linked N-CAM isoforms being components of the regulatory machinery that determines neuronal morphology and process outgrowth.

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