The 43-kD growth-associated protein (GAP-43) is a major protein kinase C (PKC) substrate of axonal growth cones, developing nerve terminals, regenerating axons, and adult central nervous system areas associated with plasticity. It is a cytosolic protein associated with the cortical cytoskeleton and the plasmalemma. Membrane association of GAP-43 is mediated by palmitoylation at Cys3Cys4. In vitro and in vivo, phosphorylation by PKC exclusively involves Ser41 of mammalian GAP-43 (corresponding to Ser42 in the chick protein). To identify aspects of GAP-43 function, we analyzed the actions of wild-type, membrane-association, and phosphorylation-site mutants of GAP-43 in nonneuronal cell lines. The GAP-43 constructs were introduced in L6 and COS-7 cells by transient transfection. Like the endogenous protein in neurons and their growth cones, GAP-43 in nonneuronal cells associated with the cell periphery. GAP-43 accumulated in the pseudopods of spreading cells and appeared to interact with cortical actin-containing filaments. Spreading L6 cells expressing high levels of recombinant protein displayed a characteristic F-actin labeling pattern consisting of prominent radial arrays of peripheral actin filaments. GAP-43 had dramatic effects on local surface morphology. Characteristic features of GAP-43-expressing cells were irregular cell outlines with prominent and numerous filopodia. The effects of GAP-43 on cell morphology required association with the cell membrane, since GAP-43(Ala3Ala4), a mutant that failed to associate with the cell cortex, had no morphogenetic activity. Two GAP-43 phosphorylation mutants (Ser42 to Ala42 preventing and Ser42 to Asp42 mimicking phosphorylation by PKC) modulated the effects of GAP-43 in opposite ways. Cells expressing GAP-43(Asp42) spread extensively and displayed large and irregular membranous extensions with little filopodia, whereas GAP-43(Ala42) produced small, poorly spreading cells with numerous short filopodia. Therefore, GAP-43 influences cell surface behavior and phosphorylation modulates its activity. The presence of GAP-43 in growing axons and developing nerve termini may affect the behavior of their actin-containing cortical cytoskeleton in a regulatable manner.

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