Interest in the glycosphingolipid galactocerebroside (GC) is based on the consensus that in the nervous system it is expressed only by myelin-forming Schwann cells and oligodendrocytes, and that it has a specific role in the elaboration of myelin sheaths. We have investigated GC distribution in two rat nerves--the sciatic, containing a mixture of myelinated and non-myelinated axons, and the cervical sympathetic trunk, in which greater than 99% of axons are non-myelinated. Immunohistochemical experiments using mono- and polyclonal GC antibodies were carried out on teased nerves and cultured Schwann cells, and GC synthesis was assayed biochemically. Unexpectedly, we found that mature non-myelin-forming Schwann cells in situ and in short-term cultures express unambiguous GC immunoreactivity, comparable in intensity to that of myelinated fibers or myelin-forming cells in short-term cultures. GC synthesis was also detected in both sympathetic trunks and sciatic nerves. In the developing sympathetic trunk, GC was first seen at day 19 in utero, the number of GC-positive cells rising to approximately 95% at postnatal day 10. In contrast, the time course of GC appearance in the sciatic nerve shows two separate phases of increase, between day 18 in utero and postnatal day 1, and between postnatal days 20 and 35, at which stage approximately 94% of the cells express GC. These time courses suggest that Schwann cells, irrespective of subsequent differentiation pathway, start expressing GC at about the same time as cell division stops. We suggest that GC is a ubiquitous component of mature Schwann cell membranes in situ. Therefore, the role of GC needs to be reevaluated, since its function is clearly not restricted to events involved in myelination.

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