During growth of Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) epithelial cells, there is a dramatic change in the stability, biophysical properties, and distribution of the membrane skeleton (fodrin) which coincides temporally and spatially with the development of the polarized distribution of the Na+, K+-ATPase, a marker protein of the basolateral domain of the plasma membrane. These changes occur maximally upon the formation of a continuous monolayer of cells, indicating that extensive cell-cell contact may play an important role in the organization of polarized MDCK cells (Nelson, W. J., and P. J. Veshnock, 1986, J. Cell Biol., 103:1751-1766). To directly analyze the role of cell-cell contact in these events, we have used an assay in which the organization of fodrin and membrane proteins is analyzed in confluent monolayers of MDCK cells in the absence or presence of cell-cell contact by adjusting the concentration Ca++ in the growth medium. Our results on the stability and solubility properties of fodrin reported here show directly that there is a positive correlation between cell-cell contact and increased stability and insolubility of fodrin. Furthermore, we show that fodrin can be recruited from an unstable pool of protein to a stable pool during induction of cell-cell contact; significantly, the stabilization of fodrin is not affected by the addition of cyclohexamide, indicating that proteins normally synthesized during the induction of cell-cell contact are not required. Together these results indicate that cell-cell contact may play an important role in the development of polarity in MDCK cells by initiating the formation of a stable, insoluble matrix of fodrin with preexisting (membrane) proteins at the cell periphery. This matrix may function subsequently to trap proteins targeted to the membrane, resulting in the maintenance of membrane domains.

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