Secondary cultures of Schwann cells were transfected with a plasmid containing the SV-40 T antigen gene expressed under the control of the mouse metallothionein-I promoter. We used the calcium phosphate method for transfection and obtained a transfection efficiency of 0.01%. The colonies were cloned by limited dilution, and these cloned cell lines were carried in medium containing zinc chloride (100 microM). One cloned cell line, which has now been carried for 180 doublings, appears to have a transformed phenotype with a doubling time of 20 h. These cells express SV-40 T antigen while maintaining established Schwann cell properties (positive staining for 217c, Ran-2, A5E3, glial fibrillary acidic protein, presence of 2',3'-cyclic nucleotide phosphohydrolase [CNPase] activity, and the ability to synthesize sulfogalactosylceramide and mRNA for the myelin protein, P0). Removal of zinc chloride from the medium resulted in reduced expression of T antigen and a change in the appearance of the cells to a more bipolar shape, although they still did not exhibit contact inhibition and maintained a doubling time of 20 h. These cells now became Ran-2-negative and showed increases in CNPase activity and in their ability to synthesize sulfogalactosylceramide. The amount of P0 mRNA remained unchanged. Transfected Schwann cells, however, stopped dividing when they contacted either basal lamina or neurites and became bipolar in appearance. The Schwann cells in contact with the neurites then extended processes to wrap around bundles of neurites. Transfection with the SV-40 T antigen gene therefore provides a method for obtaining Schwann cell lines that continue to express properties associated with untransfected cells in culture and may be used to study axon-Schwann cell interaction.

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