To clarify whether a single oncogene can transform primary cells in culture, we compared the transforming effect of a recombinant retrovirus (ZSV) containing the v-src gene in rat embryo fibroblasts (REFs) to that in the rat cell line 3Y1. In the focus assay, REFs exhibited resistance to transformation as only six foci were observed in the primary cultures as opposed to 98 in 3Y1 cells. After G418 selection, efficiency of transformation was again somewhat lower with REFs compared to that with 3Y1 cells, but the number of G418-resistant REF colonies was much greater than the number of foci in REF cultures. Furthermore, while 98% of G418-resistant colonies of ZSV-infected REFs were morphologically transformed, only 25% were converted to anchorage-independent growth, as opposed to 100% conversion seen in ZSV-infected 3Y1 cells. The poor susceptibility of REFs to anchorage-independent transformation did not involve differences in expression and subcellular distribution of p60v-src, or its kinase activity in vitro and in vivo. It rather reflected a property of the primary cultures, as cloning of REFs before ZSV infection demonstrated that only 2 out of 6 REF clones tested were permissive for anchorage-independent growth. The nonpermissive phenotype was dominant over the permissive one in somatic hybrid cells, and associated with organized actin filament bundles and a lower growth rate, both before and after ZSV infection. These results indicate that the poor susceptibility of REFs to anchorage-independent transformation by p60v-src reflects the heterogeneity of the primary cultures. REFs can be morphologically transformed by p60v-src with high efficiency but only a small fraction is convertible to anchorage-independent growth. REF resistance seems to involve the presence of a suppressor factor which may emerge from REF differentiation during embryonic development.

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