The cellular and subcellular localization of the neural cell adhesion molecules L1 and N-CAM was studied by pre- and postembedding immunoelectron microscopic labeling procedures in the developing mouse cerebellar cortex. The salient features of the study are: L1 displays a previously unrecognized restricted expression by particular neuronal cell types (i.e., it is expressed by granule cells but not by stellate and basket cells) and by particular subcellular compartments (i.e., it is expressed on axons but not on dendrites or cell bodies of Purkinje cells). L1 is always expressed on fasciculating axons and on postmitotic, premigratory, and migrating granule cells at sites of neuron-neuron contact, but never at contact sites between neuron and glia, thus strengthening the view that L1 is not involved in granule cell migration as a neuron-glia adhesion molecule. While N-CAM antibodies reacting with the three major components of N-CAM (180, 140, and 120 kD) show a rather uniform labeling of all cell types, antibodies to the 180-kD component (N-CAM180) stain only the postmigratory granule cell bodies supporting the notion that N-CAM180, the N-CAM component with the longest cytoplasmic domain, is not expressed before stable cell contacts are formed. Furthermore, N-CAM180 is only transiently expressed on Purkinje cell dendrites. N-CAM is present in synapses on both pre- and post-synaptic membranes. L1 is expressed only preterminally and not in the subsynaptic membranes. These observations indicate an exquisite degree of fine tuning in adhesion molecule expression during neural development and suggest a rich combinatorial repertoire in the specification of cell surface contacts.

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