The expression of neonatal myosin heavy chain (MHC) was examined in developing embryonic chicken muscle cultures using a monoclonal antibody (2E9) that has been shown to be specific for that isoform (Bandman, E., 1985, Science (Wash. DC), 227: 780-782). After 1 wk in vitro some myotubes could be stained with the antibody, and the number of cells that reacted with 2E9 increased with time in culture. All myotubes always stained with a second monoclonal antibody that reacted with all MHC isoforms (AG19) or with a third monoclonal antibody that reacted with the embryonic but not the neonatal MHC (EB165). Quantitation by ELISA of an extract from 2-wk cultures demonstrated that the neonatal MHC represented between 10 and 15% of the total myosin. The appearance of the neonatal isoform was inhibited by switching young cultures to medium with a higher [K+] which has been shown to block spontaneous contractions of myotubes in culture. Furthermore, if mature cultures that reacted with the neonatal antibody were placed into high [K+] medium, neonatal MHC disappeared from virtually all myotubes within 3 d. The effect of high [K+] medium was reversible. When cultures maintained in high [K+] medium for 2 wk were placed in standard medium, which permitted the resumption of contractile activity, within 24 h cells began to react with the neonatal specific antibody, and by 72 h many myotubes were strongly positive. Since similar results were also obtained by inhibiting spontaneous contractions with tetrodotoxin, we suggest that the development of contractile activity is not only associated with the maturation of myotubes in culture, but may also be the signal that induces the expression of the neonatal MHC.

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