We have studied the fate of neurofilament proteins (NFPs) in mouse retinal ganglion cell (RGC) neurons from 1 to 180 d after synthesis and examined the proximal-to-distal distribution of the newly synthesized 70-, 140-, and 200-kD subunits along RGC axons relative to the distribution of neurofilaments. Improved methodology for intravitreal delivery of [3H]proline enabled us to quantitate changes in the accumulation and subsequent decline of radiolabeled NFP subunits at various postinjection intervals and, for the first time, to estimate the steady state levels of NFPs in different pools within axons. Two pools of newly synthesized triplet NFPs were distinguished based on their kinetics of disappearance from a 9-mm "axonal window" comprising the optic nerve and tract and their temporal-spatial distribution pattern along axons. The first pool disappeared exponentially between 17 and 45 d after injection with a half-life of 20 d. Its radiolabeled wavefront advanced along axons at 0.5-0.7 mm/d before reaching the distal end of the axonal window at 17 d, indicating that this loss represented the exit of neurofilament proteins composing the slowest phase of axoplasmic transport (SCa or group V) from axons. About 32% of the total pool of radiolabeled neurofilament proteins, however, remained in axons after 45 d and disappeared exponentially at a much slower rate (t 1/2 = 55 d). This second NFP pool assumed a nonuniform distribution along axons that was characterized proximally to distally by a 2.5-fold gradient of increasing radioactivity. This distribution pattern did not change between 45 and 180 d indicating that neurofilament proteins in the second pool constitute a relatively stationary structure in axons. Based on the relative radioactivities and residence time (or turnover) of each neurofilament pool in axons, we estimate that, in the steady state, more neurofilament proteins in mouse RGC axons may be stationary than are undergoing continuous slow axoplasmic transport. This conclusion was supported by biochemical analyses of total NFP content and by electron microscopic morphometric studies of neurofilament distribution along RGC axons. The 70-, 140-, and 200-kD subunits displayed a 2.5-fold proximal to distal gradient of increasing content along RGC axons. Neurofilaments were more numerous at distal axonal levels, paralleling the increased content of NFP.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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