Monoclonal antibody (mAb) 5B4 recognizes in the rat a large, developmentally regulated membrane glycoprotein. The larger form of this antigen (185-255 kD) occurs in the developing nervous system and is present in membranes of nerve growth cones, as determined by analysis of a growth cone particle fraction. An immunochemical characterization of this antigen and of a smaller form (140 kD), sparsely present in the mature nervous system, has been described (Ellis, L., I. Wallis, E. Abreu, and K. H. Pfenninger, 1985, J. Cell. Biol., 101:1977-1989). The present paper reports on the localization by immunofluorescence of 5B4 antigen in cultured cortical neurons, developing spinal cord, and the mature olfactory system. In culture, mAb 5B4 stains only neurons; it is sparsely present in neurons at the onset of sprouting while, during sprouting, it appears to be concentrated at the growth cone and in regions of the perikaryon. In the developing spinal cord, 5B4 labeling is faintly detectable on embryonic day 11 but is intense on fetal day 13. At this stage, the fluorescence is observed in regions of the cord where axonal growth is occurring, while areas composed of dividing or migrating neural cells are nonfluorescent. With maturation of the spinal cord, this basic pattern of fluorescence persists initially, but the staining intensity decreases dramatically. In the adult, faint fluorescence is detectable only in gray matter, presumably indicating the presence of the 140 kD rather than the fetal antigen. The only known structure of the adult mammalian nervous system where axonal growth normally occurs is the olfactory nerve. mAb 5B4 intensely stains a variable proportion of olfactory axons in the mucosa as well as in the olfactory bulb. Based on both immunochemical and immunofluorescence data, the 5B4 antigen of 185-255 kD is associated specifically with growing neurons, i.e., neurons that are generating neurites.

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