Pulse-labeling studies demonstrate that tubulin synthesized in the neuron cell body (soma) moves somatofugally within the axon (at a rate of several millimeters per day) as a well-defined wave corresponding to the slow component of axonal transport. A major goal of the present study was to determine what proportion of the tubulin in mature motor axons is transported in this wave. Lumbar motor neurons in 9-wk-old rats were labeled by injecting [35S]methionine into the spinal cord 2 wk after motor axons were injured (axotomized) by crushing the sciatic nerve. Immunoprecipitation with mAbs which recognize either class II or III beta-tubulin were used to analyze the distributions of radioactivity in these isotypes in intact and axotomized motor fibers 5 d after labeling. We found that both isotypes were associated with the slow component wave, and that the leading edge of this wave was enriched in the class III isotype. Axotomy resulted in significant increases in the labeling and transport rates of both isotypes. Immunohistochemical examination of peripheral nerve fibers demonstrated that nearly all of the class II and III beta-tubulin in nerve fibers is located within axons. Although the amounts of radioactivity per millimeter of nerve in class II and III beta-tubulin were significantly greater in axotomized than in control nerves (with increases of +160% and +58%, respectively), immunoassay revealed no differences in the amounts of these isotypes in axotomized and control motor fibers. We consider several explanations for this paradox; these include the possibility that the total tubulin content is relatively insensitive to changes in the amount of tubulin transported in the slow component wave because this wave represents the movement of only a small fraction of the tubulin in these motor fibers.

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