During normal development, the neural cell adhesion molecule N-CAM changes at the cell-surface from a sialic acid-rich embryonic, or E form, to several adult, or A forms that have less sialic acid (E-to-A conversion). To investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie these changes, we have established conditions under which E-to-A conversion occurs in cultured explants of central nervous system tissues. Mouse cerebellum, chick spinal cord, and chick retina that express the E form of N-CAM were dissected and cultured on collagen gels. After 3-6 d in culture, increased proportions of A forms were synthesized, as revealed by specific immunoprecipitation and immunoblotting. The rate of E-to-A conversion and the proportions of the different A forms synthesized in vitro were similar to those observed for the tissues in vivo at comparable times. In addition, the explants incorporated radioactive precursors of amino sugars into N-CAM, and the electrophoretic mobilities of the E and A forms of N-CAM were altered by treatment with neuraminidase in a way comparable to that found for N-CAM obtained directly from tissue. These results suggest that the post translational processing in vitro was similar to that in vivo. Logistic studies on cell division and death in the explants suggested that E-to-A conversion resulted mainly from a specific increase in synthesis of A forms in individual cells rather than as a consequence of differential birth or death within distinct cell populations. The data were consistent with the possibility that the increase in synthesis of A forms occurred either in cells that had previously synthesized E forms or in a distinct population of cells that already synthesized A forms. Cells dissociated from embryonic central nervous system tissues and cultured in vitro were also found to undergo E-to-A conversion at the same rate as the explant cultures, which suggests that if intercellular signals were responsible for initiation of the change in synthetic pattern, they had already occurred in vivo before the time of culture. In pulse-chase experiments, the E form of N-CAM that was synthesized during the first day after explantation persisted as E form for several days, at times when newly synthesized N-CAM was predominantly in A forms. These results indicate that in cultured neural tissue, the E form of N-CAM is not processed into A forms but is gradually degraded and replaced by newly synthesized A forms.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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