The mechanisms underlying control of cell growth and differentiation in epithelial tissues are poorly understood. Protein kinase C (PKC) isozymes, members of a large family of serine/threonine kinases of fundamental importance in signal transduction, have been increasingly implicated in the regulation of cell growth, differentiation, and function. Using the rat intestinal epithelium as a model system, we have examined PKC-specific activity as well as individual PKC isozyme expression and distribution (i.e., activation status) in epithelial cells in situ. Increased PKC activity was detected in differentiating and functional cells relative to immature proliferating crypt cells. Immunofluorescence and Western blot analysis using a panel of isozyme-specific antibodies revealed that PKC alpha, beta II, delta, epsilon, and zeta are expressed in rat intestinal epithelial cells and exhibit distinct subcellular distribution patterns along the crypt-villus unit. The combined morphological and biochemical approach used permitted analysis of the activation status of specific PKC isozymes at the individual cell level. These studies showed that marked changes in membrane association and level of expression for PKC alpha, beta II, delta, and zeta occur as cells cease division in the mid-crypt region and begin differentiation. Additional changes in PKC activation status are observed with acquisition of mature function on the villus. These studies clearly demonstrate naturally occurring alterations in PKC isozyme activation status at the individual cell level within the context of a developing tissue. Direct activation of PKC in an immature intestinal crypt cell line was shown to result in growth inhibition and coincident translocation of PKC alpha from the cytosolic to the particulate subcellular fraction, paralleling observations made in situ and providing further support for a role of intestinal PKC isozymes in post-mitotic events. PKC isozymes were also found to be tightly associated with cytoskeletal elements, suggesting participation in control of the structural organization of the enterocyte. Taken together, the results presented strongly suggest an involvement of PKC isoforms in cellular processes related to growth cessation, differentiation, and function of intestinal epithelial cells in situ.

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