The F3 molecule is a member of the immunoglobulin superfamily anchored to membranes by a glycane-phosphatidylinositol, and is predominantly expressed on subsets of axons of the central and peripheral nervous system. In a previous paper (Gennarini, G., P. Durbec, A. Boned, G. Rougon, and C. Goridis. 1991. Neuron. 6:595-606), we have established that F3 fulfills the operational definition of a cell adhesion molecule and that it stimulates neurite outgrowth when presented to sensory neurons as a surface component of transfected CHO cells. In the present study the question as to whether soluble forms of F3 would be functionally active was addressed in vitro on cultures of mouse dorsal root ganglion neurons. We observed that preparations enriched in soluble F3 had no effect on neuron attachment but enhanced neurite initiation and neurite outgrowth in a dose-dependent manner. By contrast, soluble NCAM-120 does not have any measurable effect on these phenomena. Addition of anti-F3 monovalent antibodies reduced the number of process-bearing neurons and the neuritic output per neuron to control values. Addition of cerebrospinal fluid, a natural source of soluble F3, also stimulated neurite extension, and this effect was partially blocked by anti-F3 antibodies. Our results suggest that the soluble forms of adhesive proteins with neurite outgrowth-promoting properties could act at a distance from their site of release in a way reminiscent of growth and trophic factors.

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