Desmosomes are not formed in epithelial cell cultures growing in media with low (less than or equal to 0.1 mM) concentrations of Ca2+ (LCM) but appear rapidly upon shift to media of normal calcium concentrations (NCM). Previous authors using immunolocalization of desmoplakin, a marker protein for the desmosomal plaque, in LCM-grown cells have interpreted positively stained, dense, cytoplasmic aggregates on intermediate filaments (IF) bundles as preformed plaque units which upon NCM shift would move to the plasma membrane and contribute to desmosome formation. Studying various cell cultures, including primary mouse keratinocytes and human A-431 cells, we show that most, probably all, desmoplakin-positive aggregates in LCM-grown cells are associated with membranous structures, mostly vesicles, and also contain other desmosomal markers, including desmoglein, a transmembrane glycoprotein. We interpret such vesicles as residual desmosome-derived domains endocytosed upon cell dissociation. Only keratinocytes grown for long times (2-4 wk) in LCM are practically free from such vesicles. In addition, we demonstrate that certain cells such as A-431 cells, when passaged in LCM and in the absence of stable junctions, are able to continually assemble "half-desmosomes" on the plasma membrane which in turn can be endocytosed as plaque-bearing vesicles. We also show that in LCM the synthesis of several desmosomal proteins (desmoplakins I and II, plakoglobin, desmoglein, "band 6 protein") continues and that most of the plaque protein, desmoplakin, is diffusely spread over the cytoplasm, apparently in a soluble monodisperse form of approximately 9S. From our results we propose that the plaque proteins occur in small, discrete, diffusible entities in the cytoplasm, in concentrations that are relatively high in LCM and low in NCM, from which they assemble directly, i.e., without intermediate precursor aggregates on IFs in the cytoplasm, on certain plasma membrane domains in a Ca2+ dependent process.

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