All Ca2(+)-dependent cell adhesion molecules are synthesized as precursor polypeptides followed by a series of posttranslational modifications including proteolytic cleavage. The mature proteins are formed intracellularly and transported to the cell surface. For uvomorulin the precursor segment is composed of 129-amino acid residues which are cleaved off to generate the 120-kD mature protein. To elucidate the role of proteolytic processing, we constructed cDNAs encoding mutant uvomorulin that could no longer be processed by endogenous proteolytic enzymes and expressed the mutant polypeptides in L cells. Instead of the recognition sites for endogenous proteases, these mutants contained either a recognition site of serum coagulation factor Xa or a new trypsin cleavage site. The intracellular proteolytic processing of mutant polypeptides was inhibited in both cases. The unprocessed polypeptides were efficiently expressed on the cell surface and had other features in common with mature uvomorulin, such as complex formation with catenins and Ca2(+)-dependent resistance to proteolytic degradation. However, cells expressing unprocessed polypeptides showed no uvomorulin-mediated adhesive function. Treatment of the mutant proteins with the respective proteases results in cleavage of the precursor region and the activation of uvomorulin function. However, other proteases although removing the precursor segment were ineffective in activating the adhesive function. These results indicate that correct processing is required for uvomorulin function and emphasize the importance of the amino-terminal region of mature uvomorulin polypeptide in the molecular mechanism of adhesion.

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