The ways in which the various microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) contribute to cellular function are unknown beyond the ability of these proteins to modify microtubule dynamics. One member of the MAP family, tau protein, is restricted in its distribution to the axonal compartment of neurons, and has therefore prompted studies that attempt to relate tau function to the generation or maintenance of this structure. Sf9 cells from a moth ovary, when infected with a baculovirus containing a tau cDNA insert, elaborate very long processes. This single gene product expressed in a foreign host cell grossly alters the normal rounded morphology of these cells. The slender, relatively nonbranched appearance of these processes as well as their uniform caliber resembles the light-microscopic appearance of axons observed in several neuronal culture systems. Immunolabeling of the tau-expressing Sf9 cells demonstrated tau reactivity in the induced processes, and EM that microtubule bundles were present in the processes. Microtubule stabilization alone was insufficient to generate processes, since taxol treatment did not alter the overall cell shape, despite the induction of microtubule bundling within the cell body.

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