Neural and non-neural cellular processes have been studied in organotypic cultures of spinal cord and olfactory bulb by means of the freeze-fracturing technique. Identification of specific cellular elements in replicas has been achieved by comparison with thin-sectioned material in which differences in shape and contents are evident. Freeze-fracturing reveals that neural growth cones may be distinguished from glial pseudopodia by the low number of intramembranous particles within their plasma membrane; the counts of particles within the growth cone membrane average 85/µm2 (for the inner leaflet) as opposed to hundreds per square micrometer in glial pseudopodia. Whereas the intramembranous particle number in glial pseudopodia is only slightly lower than in their perikaryal plasmalemma, the number of particles in outgrowing axons increases about eightfold from the periphery towards the perikaryon. Furthermore, with prolonged time of growth in culture, the particle density in the young nerve fibers increases by about the same factor. The same phenomenon, i.e. a low intramembranous particle level at earlier stages and an increase in numbers as the nerve fiber matures, is observed in fetal nerve tissue in vivo. These findings suggest that the plasmalemma of the outgrowing nerve, and especially of the growth cone, is immature and that maturation is accompanied by the insertion of intramembranous particles. Furthermore, these data indicate that the chemistry of the growth cone membrane is distinct from that of the neuron soma which may be significant for the mechanisms of guidance and recognition in the growing nerve tip.

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