The HNK-1 and L2 monoclonal antibodies are thought to recognize identical or closely associated carbohydrate epitopes on a family of neural plasma membrane glycoproteins, including myelin-associated glycoprotein, the neural cell adhesion molecule, and the L1 and J1 glycoproteins, all of which have been postulated to play a part in mediating cell-cell interactions in the nervous system. We have used these two antibodies in immunofluorescence and immunogold-electron microscopic studies of semithin and ultrathin frozen sections of adult rat optic nerve, respectively, and we show that they bind mainly to astrocyte processes around nodes of Ranvier. Most other elements of the nerve, including astrocyte cell bodies and large astrocytic processes, are not labeled by the antibodies. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that perinodal astrocyte processes are biochemically specialized. We provide evidence that one of the HNK-1+/L2+ molecules concentrated around perinodal astrocyte processes is the J1 glycoprotein; our findings, taken together with previously reported observations, suggest that the other known HNK-1+/L2+ molecules are not concentrated on these processes. Since anti-J1 antibodies previously have been shown to inhibit neuron to astrocyte adhesion in vitro, we hypothesize that J1 may play an important part in the axon-glial interactions that presumably are involved in the assembly and/or maintenance of nodes of Ranvier.

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