The precise function of the yolk platelets of sea urchin embryos during early development is unknown. We have shown previously that the chemical composition of the yolk platelets remains unchanged in terms of phospholipid, triglyceride, hexose, sialic acid, RNA, and total protein content after fertilization and early development. However, the platelet is not entirely static because the major 160-kD yolk glycoprotein YP-160 undergoes limited, step-wise proteolytic cleavage during early development. Based on previous studies by us and others, it has been postulated that yolk platelets become acidified during development, leading to the activation of a cathepsin B-like yolk proteinase that is believed to be responsible for the degradation of the major yolk glycoprotein. To investigate this possibility, we studied the effect of addition of chloroquine, which prevents acidification of lysosomes. Consistent with the postulated requirement for acidification, it was found that chloroquine blocked YP-160 breakdown but had no effect on embryonic development. To directly test the possibility that acidification of the yolk platelets over the course of development temporally correlated with YP-160 proteolysis, we added 3-(2,4-dinitroanilo)-3-amino-N-methyldipropylamine (DAMP) to eggs or embryos. This compound localizes to acidic organelles and can be detected in these organelles by EM. The results of these studies revealed that yolk platelets did, in fact, become transiently acidified during development. This acidification occurred at the same time as yolk protein proteolysis, i.e., at 6 h after fertilization (64-cell stage) in Strongylocentrotus purpuratus and at 48 h after fertilization (late gastrula) in L. pictus. Furthermore, the pH value at the point of maximal acidification of the yolk platelets in vivo was equal to the pH optimum of the enzyme measured in vitro, indicating that this acidification is sufficient to activate the enzyme. For both S. purpuratus and Lytechinus pictus, the observed decrease in the pH was approximately 0.8 U, from 7.0 to 6.2. The trypsin inhibitor benzamidine was found to inhibit the yolk proteinase in vivo. By virtue of the fact that this inhibitor was reversible we established that the activity of the yolk proteinase is developmentally regulated even though the enzyme is present throughout the course of development. These findings indicate that acidification of yolk platelets is a developmentally regulated process that is a prerequisite to initiation of the catabolism of the major yolk glycoprotein.

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