Oligodendrocytes, the myelin-forming cells of the central nervous system, were cultured from newborn rat brain and optic nerve to allow us to analyze whether two transmembranous myelin proteins, myelin-associated glycoprotein (MAG) and proteolipid protein (PLP), were expressed together with myelin basic protein (MBP) in defined medium with low serum and in the absence of neurons. Using double label immunofluorescence, we investigated when and where these three myelin proteins appeared in cells expressing galactocerebroside (GC), a specific marker for the oligodendrocyte membrane. We found that a proportion of oligodendrocytes derived from brain and optic nerve invariably express MBP, MAG, and PLP about a week after the emergence of GC, which occurs around birth. In brain-derived oligodendrocytes, MBP and MAG first emerge between the fifth and the seventh day after birth, followed by PLP 1 to 2 d later. All three proteins were confined to the cell body at that time, although an extensive network of GC positive processes had already developed. Each protein shows a specific cytoplasmic localization: diffuse for MBP, mostly perinuclear for MAG, and particulate for PLP. Interestingly, MAG, which may be involved in glial-axon interactions, is the first myelin protein detected in the processes at approximately 10 d after birth. MBP and PLP are only seen in these locations after 15 d. All GC-positive cells express the three myelin proteins by day 19. Simultaneously, numerous membrane and myelin whorls accumulate along the oligodendrocyte surface. The sequential emergence, cytoplasmic location, and peak of expression of these three myelin proteins in vitro follow a pattern similar to that described in vivo and, therefore, are independent of continuous neuronal influences. Such cultures provide a convenient system to study factors regulating expression of myelin proteins.

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