Spinal motoneuron development is regulated by a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Among these, a possible role for homeoproteins is suggested by their expression in the motoneuron at relatively late stages. To investigate their possible involvement in motoneuron growth, we adapted a novel technique recently developed in this laboratory, based on the ability of the 60 amino acid-long homeobox of Antennapedia (pAntp) to translocate through the neuronal membrane and to accumulate in the nucleus (Joliot, A. H., C. Pernelle, H. Deagostini-Bazin, and A. Prochiantz. 1991. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 88:1864-1868; Joliot, A. H., A. Triller, M. Volovitch, C. Pernelle, and A. Prochiantz. 1991. New Biol. 3:1121-1134). Motoneurons from E5 chicken spinal cord were incubated with pAntp, purified by panning on SC1 antibody and plated on polyornithine/laminin substrata without further addition of pAntp. After 24 h, neurite outgrowth was already extensive in controls. In cultures of motoneurons that had been preincubated with 10(-7) M pAntp, neurite length was doubled; a similar effect was obtained using postnatal muscle extracts. Morphological analysis using a neurofilament marker specific for axons indicated that the homeobox peptide enhances primarily axonal elongation and branching. To test the hypothesis that the biological activity of pAntp involves its specific attachment to cognate homeobox binding sites present in the genome, we generated a mutant of pAntp called pAntp40P2, that was still able to translocate through the motoneuron membrane and to reach the nucleus, but had lost the specific DNA-binding properties of the wild-type peptide. Preincubation of pAntp40P2 with purified motoneurons failed to increase neurite outgrowth. This finding raises the possibility that motoneuron growth is controlled by homeobox proteins.

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