Constitutive centripetal transport of the actin-based cytoskeleton has been detected in cells spreading on a substrate, locomoting fibroblasts and keratocytes, and non-locomoting serum-deprived fibroblasts. These results suggest a gradient of actin assembly, highest in the cortex at the cytoplasm-membrane interface and lowest in the non-cortical perinuclear cytoplasm. We predicted that such a gradient would be maintained in part by phosphoinositide-regulated actin binding proteins because the intracellular free Ca2+ and pH are low and spatially constant in serum-deprived cells. The cytoplasm-membrane interface presents one surface where the assembly of actin is differentially regulated relative to the non-cortical cytoplasm. Several models, based on in vitro biochemistry, propose that phosphoinositide-regulated actin binding proteins are involved in local actin assembly. To test these models in living cells using imaging techniques, we prepared a new fluorescent analog of actin that bound profilin, a protein that interacts with phosphoinositides and actin-monomers in a mutually exclusive manner, with an order of magnitude greater affinity (Kd = 3.6 microM) than cys-374-labeled actin (Kd > 30 microM), yet retained the ability to inhibit DNase I. Hence, we were able to directly compare the distribution and activity of a biochemical mutant of actin with an analog possessing closer to wild-type activity. Three-dimensional fluorescence microscopy of the fluorescent analog of actin with a high affinity for profilin revealed that it incorporated into cortical cytoplasmic fibers and was also distributed diffusely in the non-cortical cytoplasm consistent with a bias of actin assembly near the surface of the cell. Fluorescence ratio imaging revealed that serum-deprived and migrating fibroblasts concentrated the new actin analog into fibers up to four-fold in the periphery and leading edge of these cells, respectively, relative to a soluble fluorescent dextran volume marker, consistent with the formation of a gradient of actin filament density relative to cell volume. Comparison of these gradients in the same living cell using analogs of actin with high and low affinities for profilin demonstrated that increased profilin binding enhanced the gradient. Profilin and related proteins may therefore function in part to bias the assembly of actin at the membrane-cytoplasm interface.

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