We assessed the mechanical properties of PC-12 neurites by applying a force with calibrated glass needles and measured resulting changes in neurite length and deflection of the needle. We observed a linear relationship between force and length change that was not affected by multiple distensions and were thus able to determine neurite spring constants and initial, nondistended, rest tensions. 81 out of 82 neurites showed positive rest tensions ranging over three orders of magnitude with most values clustering around 30-40 mu dynes. Treatment with cytochalasin D significantly reduced neurite rest tensions to an average compression equal to 14% of the former tension and spring constants to an average of 17% of resting values. Treatment with nocodazole increased neurite rest tensions to an average of 282% of resting values but produced no change in spring constant. These observations suggest a particular type of complementary force interaction underlying axonal shape; the neurite actin network under tension and neurite microtubules under compression. Thermodynamics suggests that microtubule (MT) assembly may be regulated by changes in compressive load. We tested this effect by releasing neurite attachment to a polylysine-coated surface with polyaspartate, thus shifting external compressive support onto internal elements, and measuring the relative change in MT polymerization using quantitative Western blotting. Neurons grown on polylysine or collagen without further treatment had a 1:2 ratio of soluble to polymerized tubulin. When neurites grown on polylysine were treated with 1% polyaspartate for 15-30 min, 80% of neurites retracted, shifting the soluble: polymerized tubulin ratio to 1:1. Polyaspartate treatment of cells grown on collagen, or grown on polylysine but treated with cytochalasin to reduce tension, caused neither retraction nor a change in the soluble:polymerized tubulin ratio. We suggest that the release of adhesion to the dish shifted the compressive load formerly borne by the dish onto Mts causing their partial depolymerization. Our observations are consistent with the possibility that alterations in MT compression during growth cone advance integrates MT assembly with the advance.

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