Immature Schwann cells of the rat sciatic nerve can differentiate into myelin-forming or non-myelin-forming cells. The factors that influence this divergent development are unknown but certain markers such as galactocerebroside distinguish the two cell populations at an early stage of Schwann cell differentiation. Because myelination requires extensive changes in cell morphology, we have investigated the composition and structure of the Schwann cell cytoskeleton at a time when these cells become committed to myelination. Here we show that Schwann cells express a cytoskeletal protein of M(r) 145 before diverging into the myelin-forming path, i.e., before they acquire cell-surface galactocerobroside. The p145 protein has the characteristics of an intermediate filament (IF) protein and immunoelectron microscopy shows that it colocalizes with vimentin, which suggests that these two proteins can coassemble into IFs. Elevated intracellular cAMP levels, which can mimic some of the early effects of axons on Schwann cell differentiation, induced p145 synthesis, therefore, we conclude that myelin-forming Schwann cells express this protein at a very early stage in their development. Immunological comparisons with other IF proteins revealed a close similarity between p145 and the neurofilament protein NF-M; the identification of p145 as NF-M was confirmed by isolating and sequencing a full-length clone from a Schwann cell cDNA library. These data demonstrate that Schwann cells remodel their IFs by expressing NF-M before acquiring the myelin-forming phenotype and that IF proteins of the neurofilament-type are not restricted to neurons in the vertebrate nervous system.

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