After exposure to nerve growth factor, PC12 cells differentiate within a period of only a few days into cholinergic sympathetic neurons. Using computer-assisted three-dimensional serial electron microscopic reconstruction, we describe the progressive cytoskeletal and structural changes of PC12 neurites at different stages in their differentiation. Developmental changes in these neurites can be characterized by two major transitions. First, microtubules (MTs), which define the longitudinal axis of the neurite, increase in number leading to a more cylindrical and uniform neurite shape. Second, there are major changes in the relative numbers of other organelle types, which reflect the functional specialization of the neurite. These changes do not in themselves seriously affect shape change of the neurite during development, however the presence of these organelles and their associated obligatory volumes (volumes surrounding organelle) account for well over 50% of the neurite's volume at all stages of development. The MT-MT distances and obligatory volumes associated with the organelles remain constant throughout development. Thus, we can conclude that many of the observed changes seen in developing PC12 neurites are due simply to the production of a greater number of MTs in the cell, and that many of the other important parameters that can be measured and contribute to neurite shape remain constant during development.

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