We have previously proposed that polysialic acid (PSA), which is attached to NCAM on the cell surface, can serve to regulate a variety of cell-cell interactions. The present study provides evidence that hydrated PSA influences a sufficiently large volume at the cell surface to exert broad steric effects, and that the removal of PSA in fact causes a detectable change in intercellular space. Using F11 neuron/neuroblastoma hybrid cells as a model system, the measured density and size of PSA suggests that a substantial fraction of the space between two apposed cell surface membranes could be sterically influenced by the presence of PSA. Specific enzymatic removal of PSA, which is similar in magnitude to changes that occur in many tissues during normal development, caused about a 25% decrease in the distance between two apposed cells. By contrast, removal of both heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate from the cells had no effect on this parameter. It is proposed that such changes in membrane-membrane distance could serve to alter selectively the efficiency of encounter between complementary receptors on apposing cells, and explain at least in part the broad biological influences of PSA.

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