To study microtubule (MT) dynamics in nerve cells, we microinjected biotin-labeled tubulin into the cell body of chemically fused and differentiated PC12 cells and performed the immunofluorescence or immunogold procedure using an anti-biotin antibody followed by secondary antibodies coupled to fluorescent dye or colloidal gold. Incorporation of labeled subunits into the cytoskeleton of neurites was observed within minutes after microinjection. Serial electron microscopic reconstruction revealed that existing MTs in PC12 neurites incorporated labeled subunits mainly at their distal ends and the elongation rate of labeled segments was estimated to be less than 0.3 micron/min. Overall organization of MTs in the nerve cells was different from that in undifferentiated cells such as fibroblasts. Namely, we have not identified any MT-organizing centers from which labeled MTs are emanating in the cell bodies of the injected cells. Stereo electron microscopy revealed that some fully labeled segments seemed to start in the close vicinity of electron dense material within the neurites. This suggests new nucleation off some structures in the neurites. We have also studied the overall pattern of the incorporation of labeled subunits which extended progressively from the proximal part of the neurites toward their tips. To characterize the mechanism of tubulin incorporation, we have measured mean density of gold labeling per unit length of labeled segments at different parts of the neurites. The results indicate access of free tubulin subunits into the neurites and local incorporation into the neurite cytoskeleton. Our results lead to the conclusion that MTs are not static polymers but dynamic structures that continue to elongate even within the differentiated nerve cell processes.

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