In higher vertebrates the cytoskeleton of glial cells, notably astrocytes, is characterized (a) by masses of intermediate filaments (IFs) that contain the hallmark protein of glial differentiation, the glial filament protein (GFP); and (b) by the absence of cytokeratin IFs and IF-anchoring membrane domains of the desmosome type. Here we report that in certain amphibian species (Xenopus laevis, Rana ridibunda, and Pleurodeles waltlii) the astrocytes of the optic nerve contain a completely different type of cytoskeleton. In immunofluorescence microscopy using antibodies specific for different IF and desmosomal proteins, the astrocytes of this nerve are positive for cytokeratins and desmoplakins; by electron microscopy these reactions could be correlated to IF bundles and desmosomes. By gel electrophoresis of cytoskeletal proteins, combined with immunoblotting, we demonstrate the cytokeratinous nature of the major IF proteins of these astroglial cells, comprising at least three major cytokeratins. In this tissue we have not detected a major IF protein that could correspond to GFP. In contrast, cytokeratin IFs and desmosomes have not been detected in the glial cells of brain and spinal cord or in certain peripheral nerves, such as the sciatic nerve. These results provide an example of the formation of a cytokeratin cytoskeleton in the context of a nonepithelial differentiation program. They further show that glial differentiation and functions, commonly correlated with the formation of GFP filaments, are not necessarily dependent on GFP but can also be achieved with structures typical of epithelial differentiation; i.e., cytokeratin IFs and desmosomes. We discuss the cytoskeletal differences of glial cells in different kinds of nerves in the same animal, with special emphasis on the optic nerve of lower vertebrates as a widely studied model system of glial development and nerve regeneration.

This content is only available as a PDF.