Hippocampal neurons growing in culture initially extend several, short minor processes that have the potential to become either axons or dendrites. The first expression of polarity occurs when one of these minor processes begins to elongate rapidly, becoming the axon. Before axonal outgrowth, the growth-associated protein GAP-43 is distributed equally among the growth cones of the minor processes; it is preferentially concentrated in the axonal growth cone once polarity has been established (Goslin, K., D. Schreyer, J. Skene, and G. Banker. 1990. J. Neurosci. 10:588-602). To determine when the selective segregation of GAP-43 begins, we followed individual cells by video microscopy, fixed them as soon as the axon could be distinguished, and localized GAP-43 by immunofluorescence microscopy. Individual minor processes acquired axonal growth characteristics within a period of 30-60 min, and GAP-43 became selectively concentrated to the growth cones of these processes with an equally rapid time course. We also examined changes in the distribution of GAP-43 after transection of the axon. After an axonal transection that is distant from the soma, neuronal polarity is maintained, and the original axon begins to regrow almost immediately. In such cases, GAP-43 became selectively concentrated in the new axonal growth cone within 12-30 min. In contrast, when the axon is transected close to the soma, polarity is lost; the original axon rarely regrows, and there is a significant delay before a new axon emerges. Under these circumstances, GAP-43 accumulated in the new growth cone much more slowly, suggesting that its ongoing selective routing to the axon had been disrupted by the transection. These results demonstrate that the selective segregation of GAP-43 to the growth cone of a single process is closely correlated with the acquisition of axonal growth characteristics and, hence, with the expression of polarity.

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