We have used transient and stable DNA transfection to force synthesis of the mouse NF-L and NF-M genes in nonneuronal cultured animal cells. When the authentic NF-L gene (containing 1.7 kb of sequences 5' to the transcription initiation site) was transfected into L cells, correctly initiated NF-L mRNA was produced from the transfected gene but not the endogenous NF-L genes. Therefore, the normal restriction of NF-L expression to neurons cannot derive exclusively from absence in nonneuronal cells of neuron-specific transcription factors. When the NF-L coding region was linked to the strong promoter from Moloney Murine Sarcoma virus, we obtained high levels of synthesis of NF-L subunits (accumulating to as much as 9% of cell protein in stable cell lines). Although NF-L and NF-M polypeptides are normally expressed exclusively in postmitotic neurons, NF-L or NF-M polypeptides expressed in fibroblasts were efficiently assembled into intermediate filament arrays, thus demonstrating the competence of both NF-L and NF-M to assemble in vivo in the absence of additional neuron-specific factors. As judged by immunofluorescence localization and by the alteration in the solubility of the endogenous vimentin filaments, filaments containing NF-L appeared to be copolymers with vimentin. Neither the alteration in the properties of the vimentin array nor the accumulation of NF-L to a level that made it the second most abundant cellular protein (after actin) had any observable effect on cell viability or growth rate.

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