Microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) are believed to play an important role in regulating the growth of neuronal processes. The nerve growth factor-induced differentiation of PC12 pheochromocytoma cells is a widely used tissue culture model for studying this mechanism. We have found that contrary to previous suggestions, the major MAPs of adult brain, MAP1 and MAP2, are minor components of PC12 cells. Instead two novel MAPs characteristic of developing brain, MAP3 and MAP5, are present and increase more than 10-fold after nerve growth factor treatment; the timing of these increases coinciding with the bundling of microtubules and neurite outgrowth. Immunocytochemical staining showed that MAP3 and MAP5 are initially distributed throughout the cytoplasm. Subsequently MAP5 becomes associated with microtubules in both neurites and growth cones but MAP3 distribution remained diffuse. Thus MAP3 and MAP5, which are characteristic of developing neurons in the juvenile brain, are also induced in PC12 cells during neurite outgrowth in culture. In contrast MAP1, which is characteristic of mature neurons, does not increase during PC12 cell differentiation. These results provide evidence that one set of MAPs is expressed during neurite outgrowth and a different set during the maintenance of neuronal form. It also appears that the PC12 system is an appropriate model for studying the active neurite growth phase of neuronal differentiation but not for neuronal maturation.

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