The plasmalemma of mature and growing olfactory axons of the bullfrog has been studied by freeze-fracture. Intramembrane particles (IMPs) of mature olfactory axons are found to be uniformly distributed along the shaft. However, during growth, a decreasing gradient of IMP density is evident along the somatofugal axis. The size histograms of axolemmal IMPs from different segments of growing nerve reveal regional differences in the particle composition. The distribution of each individual size class of particles along the growing nerve forms a decreasing gradient in the somatofugal direction; the slope of these gradients varies directly with particle diameter. These size-dependent density gradients are consistent with a process of lateral diffusion of membrane components that are inserted proximally into the plasma membrane. The membrane composition of the growth cone, however, appears to be independent of these diffusion gradients; it displays a mosaic pattern of discrete domains of high and low particle densities. The relative IMP profiles of these growth cone regions are similar to one another but contain higher densities of large IMPs than the neighboring axonal shaft. The shifting distributions of intramembrane particles that characterize the sprouting neuron give new insights into cellular processes that may underlie the establishment of the functional polarity of the neuron and into the dynamics of axolemmal maturation.

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