To characterize the behavior of axonal microtubules in vivo, we analyzed the movement of tubulin labeled with caged fluorescein after activation to be fluorescent by irradiation of 365-nm light. When mouse sensory neurons were microinjected with caged fluorescein-labeled tubulin and then a narrow region of the axon was illuminated with a 365-nm microbeam, photoactivated tubulin was stationary regardless of the position of photoactivation. We next introduced caged fluorescein-labeled tubulin into Xenopus embryos and nerve cells isolated from injected embryos were analyzed by photoactivation. In this case, movement of the photoactivated zone toward the axon tip was frequently observed. The photoactivated microtubule segments in the Xenopus axon moved out from their initial position without significant spreading, suggesting that fluorescent microtubules are not sliding as individual filaments, but rather translocating en bloc. Since these observations raised the possibility that the mechanism of nerve growth might differ between two types of neurons, we further characterized the movement of another component of the axon structure, the plasma membrane. Analysis of the position of polystyrene beads adhering to the neurites of Xenopus neurons revealed anterograde movement of the beads at the rate similar to the rate of microtubule movement. In contrast, no movement of the beads relative to the cell body was observed in mouse sensory neurons. These results suggest that the mode of translocation of cytoskeletal polymers and some components of the axon surface differ between two neuron types and that most microtubules are stationary within the axon of mammalian neurons where the surface-related motility of the axon is not observed.

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