The effects of denervation were investigated in mice with transgenes containing promoter elements from the muscle acetylcholine receptor epsilon- and alpha-subunit genes. The promoter sequences were coupled to a nuclear localization signal-beta-galactosidase fusion gene (nlacZ) as a reporter. While many postsynaptic specializations form in the embryo, expression of the epsilon subunit is induced during the first two postnatal weeks. When muscles were denervated at birth, before the onset of epsilon expression, epsilon nlacZ still appeared at the former synaptic sites on schedule. This result suggests that the nerve leaves a localized "trace" in the muscle that can continue to regulate transcription. An additional finding was that epsilon nlacZ expression was much stronger in denervated than in intact muscles. This suggests that the epsilon promoter is similar to the other subunits in containing elements that are activated on cessation of neural activity. However, even after denervation, epsilon nlacZ expression was always confined to the synaptic region whereas alpha nlacZ expression increased in nuclei along the entire length of the fiber. This suggests that while the epsilon gene is similar in its activity dependence to other subunit genes, it is unique in that local nerve-derived signals are essential for its expression. Consequently, inactivity enhances epsilon expression only in synaptic nuclei where such signals are present, but enhances expression throughout the muscle fiber. Truncations and an internal deletion of the epsilon promoter indicate that cis-elements essential for the response to synaptic signals are contained within 280 bp of the transcription start site. In contrast to these results in young animals, denervation in older animals leads to an unexpected reduction in nlacZ activity. However, mRNA measurements indicated that transgene expression was increased in these animals. This discordance between nlacZ mRNA and enzyme activity, demonstrates a previously unknown limitation of nlacZ as a reporter gene in transgenic animals.

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