The glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) is a glial-specific intermediate filament protein, which is expressed in astrocytes in the central nervous system, as well as in astrocytoma cell lines. To investigate the function of GFAP, we have studied the human astrocytoma cell line, U251, which constitutively expresses GFAP and vimentin in the same 10-nm filaments. These cells respond to neurons in vitro in the same way as primary astrocytes: they withdraw from the cell cycle, support neuronal cell survival and neurite outgrowth, and they extend complex, GFAP-positive processes. To determine the role of GFAP in these responses, we have specifically suppressed its expression by stably transfecting the U251 cells with an antisense GFAP construct. Two stable antisense cell lines from separate transfections were isolated and were shown to be GFAP negative by Northern and Western blot analyses, and by immunofluorescence studies. The antisense cell lines were inhibited in their ability to extend significant glial processes in response to neurons. In culture with primary neurons, the average increase in process length of the U251 cells was nearly 400%, as compared to only 14% for the antisense transfectants. The other neuron induced responses of astrocytes, i.e., proliferative arrest and neuronal support, were not affected in these cell lines. These data support the conclusion that the glial-specific intermediate filament protein, GFAP, is required for the formation of stable astrocytic processes in response to neurons.

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