Neither stratifying (primary keratinocytes) nor simple (Madin-Darby canine kidney [MDCK] and Madin-Darby bovine kidney [MDBK]) epithelial cell types from desmosomes in low calcium medium (LCM; less than 0.1 mM), but they can be induced to do so by raising the calcium level to physiological concentrations (standard calcium medium [SCM], 2 mM). We have used polyclonal antisera to the major bovine epidermal desmosome components (greater than 100 kD) in a sensitive assay involving immunoprecipitation of the components from metabolically labeled MDCK cell monolayers to investigate the mechanism of calcium-induced desmosome formation. MDCK cells, whether cultured in LCM or SCM, were found to synthesize the desmosome protein, DPI and desmosome glycoproteins DGI and DGII/III with identical electrophoretic mobility, and also, where relevant, with similar carbohydrate addition/processing and proteolytic processing. The timings of these events and of transport of DGI to the cell surface were similar in low and high calcium. Although the rates of synthesis of the various desmosome components were also similar under both conditions, the glycoprotein turnover rates increased dramatically in cells cultured in LCM. The half-lives decreased by a factor of about 7 for DGI and 12 for DGII/III and, consistent with this, MDCK cells labeled for 48 h in SCM had three and six times the amount of DGI and DGII/III, respectively, as cells labeled for 48 h in LCM. The rate of turnover and the levels of DPI were changed in the same direction, but to much lesser extents. Possible mechanisms for the Ca2+-dependent control of desmosome formation are discussed in the light of this new evidence.

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