We have investigated the developmental transitions of myosin heavy chain (MHC) gene expression in the rat extraocular musculature (EOM) at the mRNA level using S1-nuclease mapping techniques and at the protein level by polypeptide mapping and immunochemistry. We have isolated a genomic clone, designated lambda 10B3, corresponding to an MHC gene which is expressed in the EOM fibers (recti and oblique muscles) of the adult rat but not in hind limb muscles. Using cDNA and genomic probes for MHC genes expressed in skeletal (embryonic, neonatal, fast oxidative, fast glycolytic, and slow/cardiac beta-MHC), cardiac (alpha-MHC), and EOM (lambda 10B3) muscles, we demonstrate the concomitant expression at the mRNA level of at least six different MHC genes in adult EOM. Protein and immunochemical analyses confirm the presence of at least four different MHC types in EOM. Immunocytochemistry demonstrates that different myosin isozymes tend to segregate into individual myofibers, although some fibers seem to contain more than one MHC type. The results also show that the EOM fibers exhibit multiple patterns of MHC gene regulation. One set of fibers undergoes a sequence of isoform transitions similar to the one described for limb skeletal muscles, whereas other EOM myofiber populations arrest the MHC transition at the embryonic, neonatal/adult, or adult EOM-specific stage. Thus, the MHC gene family is not under the control of a strict developmental clock, but the individual genes can modify their expression by tissue-specific and/or environmental factors.

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