Recently it has been demonstrated that the growth-associated protein GAP-43 is not confined to neurons but is also expressed by certain central nervous system glial cells in tissue culture and in vivo. This study has extended these observations to the major class of glial cells in the peripheral nervous system, Schwann cells. Using immunohistochemical techniques, we show that GAP-43 immunoreactivity is present in Schwann cell precursors and in mature non-myelin-forming Schwann cells both in vitro and in vivo. This immunoreactivity is shown by Western blotting to be a membrane-associated protein that comigrates with purified central nervous system GAP-43. Furthermore, metabolic labeling experiments demonstrate definitively that Schwann cells in culture can synthesize GAP-43. Mature myelin-forming Schwann cells do not express GAP-43 but when Schwann cells are removed from axonal contact in vivo by nerve transection GAP-43 expression is upregulated in nearly all Schwann cells of the distal stump by 4 wk after denervation. In contrast, in cultured Schwann cells GAP-43 is not rapidly upregulated in cells that have been making myelin in vivo. Thus the regulation of GAP-43 appears to be complex and different from that of other proteins associated with nonmyelin-forming Schwann cells such as N-CAM, glial fibrillary acidic protein, A5E3, and nerve growth factor receptor, which are rapidly upregulated in myelin-forming cells after loss of axonal contact. These observations suggest that GAP-43 may play a more general role in the nervous system than previously supposed.

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