Compartmented cultures of sympathetic neurons from newborn rats were employed to test the hypothesis that the lipids required for maintenance and growth of axonal membranes must be synthesized in the cell body and transported to the axons. In compartmented cultures the distal axons grow into a compartment separate from that containing the cell bodies and proximal axons, in an environment free from other contaminating cells such as glial cells and fibroblasts. There is virtually no bulk flow of culture medium or small molecules between the cell body and axonal compartments. When [methyl-3H]choline was added to the cell body-containing compartment the biosynthesis of [3H]-labeled phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin occurred in that compartment, with a gradual transfer of lipids (less than 5% after 16 h) into the axonal compartment. Surprisingly, addition of [methyl-3H]choline to the compartment containing only the distal axons resulted in the rapid incorporation of label into phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin in that compartment. Little retrograde transport of labeled phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin (less than 15%) into the cell body compartment occurred. Moreover, there was minimal transport of the aqueous precursors of these phospholipids (e.g., choline, phosphocholine and CDP-choline) between cell compartments. Similarly, when [3H]ethanolamine was used as a phospholipid precursor, the biosynthesis of phosphatidylethanolamine occurred in the pure axons, and approximately 10% of the phosphatidylethanolamine was converted into phosphatidylcholine. Experiments with [35S]methionine demonstrated that proteins were made in the cell bodies, but not in the axons. We conclude that axons of rat sympathetic neurons have the capacity to synthesize membrane phospholipids. Thus, a significant fraction of the phospholipids supplied to the membrane during axonal growth may be synthesized locally within the growing axon.

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