Two cytoplasmic variants of the alpha 6 integrin, alpha 6A and alpha 6B, have been identified previously (Hogervorst, F., I. Kuikman, A. G. van Kessel, and A. Sonnenberg. 1991. Eur. J. Biochem. 199:425-433; Cooper, H. M., R. N. Tamura, and V. Quaranta. 1991. J. Cell Biol. 115:843-850). Using synthetic peptides, containing sequences of their cytoplasmic domains, we have produced mAbs specific for either of the variants. These antibodies reacted with a variety of different epithelial tissues. In some tissues (e.g., salivary gland) both variants could be detected while in others only one of the variants was found (e.g., alpha 6A in epidermis and alpha 6B in kidney). Among nonepithelial cells and tissues, perineural fibroblasts and Schwann cells in peripheral nerves and platelets reacted with anti-alpha 6A, while microvascular endothelia reacted with both anti-alpha 6A and anti-alpha 6B. From our immunohistochemical results there is not evidence that combination with beta 1 or beta 4 is restricted to one of the two variants of alpha 6. This was confirmed by immunoprecipitation studies which showed that both beta 1 and beta 4 were coprecipitated by both anti-alpha 6A or anti-alpha 6B antibodies from cells. Also, the distribution of alpha 6A and alpha 6B subunits associated with beta 1 on cells attached to laminin was similar: both were found in focal contacts colocalizing with vinculin. In contrast, the alpha 6A subunit, associated with beta 4 in cultures of a squamous cell carcinoma cell line, was found to codistribute with bullous pemphigoid antigen 230 in hemidesmosomal-like structures. The alpha 6A and alpha 6B variants, immunoprecipitated from various cell lines, exhibited slightly different electrophoretic mobilities. Analysis of the antigens under reducing conditions showed that the mobility of the light chains, but not of the heavy chains, is different. In addition, in some cells the light chains of alpha 6A and alpha 6B, each are of two different sizes. Treatment with N-glycanase showed that these two light chain variants of alpha 6A and alpha 6B are not due to differences in N-linked glycosylation, and may therefore represent alternative proteolytic products of the alpha 6 precursor. We further demonstrate that alpha 6A, but not alpha 6B, is a major target for PMA-induced phosphorylation. Phosphorylated alpha 6A contained phosphoserine and a small amount of phosphotyrosine. There are also two variants of the integrin alpha 3 subunit with different cytoplasmic domains, but in the cell lines examined only alpha 3A could be demonstrated by RT-PCR.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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