Immature avian sympathetic neurons are able to proliferate in culture for a limited number of divisions albeit expressing several neuron-specific properties. The effect of avian retroviral transfer of oncogenes on proliferation and differentiation of sympathetic neurons was investigated. Primary cultures of 6-d-old quail sympathetic ganglia, consisting of 90% neuronal cells, were infected by Myelocytomatosis virus (MC29), which contains the oncogene v-myc, and by the v-src-containing Rous sarcoma virus (RSV). RSV infection, in contrast to findings in other cellular systems, resulted in a reduction of neuronal proliferation as determined by 3H-thymidine incorporation (50% of control 4 d after infection) and in increased morphological differentiation. This is reflected by increased neurite production, cell size, and expression of neurofilament protein. In addition, RSV-infected neurons, unlike uninfected cells, are able to survive in culture for time periods up to 14 d in the absence of added neurotrophic factors. In contrast, retroviral transfer of v-myc stimulated the proliferation of immature sympathetic neurons preserving many properties of uninfected cells. The neuron-specific cell surface antigen Q211 and the adrenergic marker enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase were maintained in MC29-infected cells and in the presence of chick embryo extract the cells could be propagated over several weeks and five passages. Within 7 d after infection, the number of Q211-positive neurons increased approximately 100-fold. These data demonstrate distinct and different effects of v-src and v-myc-containing retroviruses on proliferation and differentiation of sympathetic neurons: v-src transfer results in increased differentiation, whereas v-myc transfer maintains an immature status reflected by proliferation, immature morphology, and complex growth requirements. The possibility of expanding immature neuronal populations by transfer of v-myc will be of considerable importance for the molecular analysis of neuronal proliferation and differentiation.

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