Through S1 nuclease mapping using a specific cDNA probe, we demonstrate that the slow myosin heavy-chain (MHC) gene, characteristic of adult soleus, is expressed in bulk hind limb muscle obtained from the 18-d rat fetus. We support these results by use of a monoclonal antibody (mAb) which is highly specific to the adult slow MHC. Immunoblots of MHC peptide maps show the same peptides, uniquely recognized by this antibody in adult soleus, are also identified in 18-d fetal limb muscle. Thus synthesis of slow myosin is an early event in skeletal myogenesis and is expressed concurrently with embryonic myosin. By immunofluorescence we demonstrate that in the 16-d fetus all primary myotubes in future fast and future slow muscles homogeneously express slow as well as embryonic myosin. Fiber heterogeneity arises owing to a developmentally regulated inhibition of slow MHC accumulation as muscles are progressively assembled from successive orders of cells. Assembly involves addition of new, superficial areas of the anterior tibial muscle (AT) and extensor digitorum longus muscle (EDL) in which primary cells initially stain weakly or are unstained with the slow mAb. In the developing AT and EDL, expression of slow myosin is unstable and is progressively restricted as these muscles specialize more and more towards the fast phenotype. Slow fibers persisting in deep portions of the adult EDL and AT are interpreted as vestiges of the original muscle primordium. A comparable inhibition of slow MHC accumulation occurs in the developing soleus but involves secondary, not primary, cells. Our results show that the fate of secondary cells is flexible and is spatially determined. By RIA we show that the relative proportions of slow MHC are fivefold greater in the soleus than in the EDL or AT at birth. After neonatal denervation, concentrations of slow MHC in the soleus rapidly decline, and we hypothesize that, in this muscle, the nerve protects and amplifies initial programs of slow MHC synthesis. Conversely, the content of slow MHC rises in the neonatally denervated EDL. This suggests that as the nerve amplifies fast MHC accumulation in the developing EDL, accumulation of slow MHC is inhibited in an antithetic fashion. Studies with phenylthiouracil-induced hypothyroidism indicate that inhibition of slow MHC accumulation in the EDL and AT is not initially under thyroid regulation. At later stages, the development of thyroid function plays a role in inhibiting slow MHC accumulation in the differentiating EDL and AT.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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