Extracellular matrix (ECM) molecules are involved in multiple aspects of cell-to-cell signaling during development and in the adult. In nervous system development, specific recognition processes, e.g., during axonal pathfinding and synaptogenesis involve modulation and signaling by ECM components. Much less is known about their presence and possible roles in the adult nervous system. We now report that thrombospondin-4 (TSP-4), a recently discovered member of the TSP gene family is expressed by neurons, promotes neurite outgrowth, and accumulates at the neuromuscular junction and at certain synapse-rich structures in the adult. To search for muscle genes that may be involved in neuromuscular signaling, we isolated cDNAs induced in adult skeletal muscle by denervation. One of these cDNAs coded for the rat homologue of TSP-4. In skeletal muscle, it was expressed by muscle interstitial cells. The transcript was further detected in heart and in the developing and adult nervous system, where it was expressed by a wide range of neurons. An antiserum to the unique carboxyl-terminal end of the protein allowed to specifically detect TSP-4 in transfected cells in vitro and on cryostat sections in situ. TSP-4 associated with ECM structures in vitro and in vivo. In the adult, it accumulated at the neuromuscular junction and at synapse-rich structures in the cerebellum and retina. To analyze possible activities of TSP-4 towards neurons, we carried out coculture experiments with stably transfected COS cells and motor, sensory, or retina neurons. These experiments revealed that TSP-4 was a preferred substrate for these neurons, and promoted neurite outgrowth. The results establish TSP-4 as a neuronal ECM protein associated with certain synapse-rich structures in the adult. Its activity towards embryonic neurons in vitro and its distribution in vivo suggest that it may be involved in local signaling in the developing and adult nervous system.

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