The neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) is present in both embryonic and perinatal muscle, but its distribution changes as myoblasts form myotubes and axons establish synapses (Covault, J., and J. R. Sanes, 1986, J. Cell Biol., 102:716-730). Levels of N-CAM decline postnatally but increase when adult muscle is denervated or paralyzed (Covault, J., and J. R. Sanes, 1985, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA., 82:4544-4548). To determine the molecular forms of N-CAM and N-CAM-related RNA during these different periods we used immunoblotting and nucleic acid hybridization techniques to analyze N-CAM and its RNA in developing, cultured, adult, and denervated adult muscle. As muscles develop, the extent of sialylation of muscle N-CAM decreases, and a 140-kD desialo form of N-CAM (generated by neuraminidase treatment) is replaced by a 125-kD form. This change in the apparent molecular weight of desialo N-CAM is paralleled by a change in N-CAM RNA: early embryonic muscles express a 6.7-kb RNA species which hybridizes with N-CAM cDNA, whereas in neonatal muscle this form is largely replaced by 5.2- and 2.9-kb species. Similar transitions in the desialo form of N-CAM, but not in extent of sialylation, accompany differentiation in primary cultures of embryonic muscle and in cultures of the clonal muscle cell lines C2 and BC3H-1. Both in vivo and in vitro, a 140-kD desialo form of N-CAM and a 6.7-kb N-CAM RNA are apparently associated with myoblasts, whereas a 125-kD desialo form and 5.2- and 2.9-kb RNAs are associated with myotubes and myofibers. After denervation of adult muscle, a approximately 12-15-fold increase in the levels of N-CAM is accompanied by a approximately 30-50-fold increase in N-CAM RNA, suggesting that N-CAM expression is regulated at a pretranslational level. Forms of N-CAM and its RNA in denervated muscle are similar to those seen in perinatal myofibers.

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