To study possible functional differences of the 18-kD and high molecular weight forms of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), we have examined the effect of endogenous production of different bFGF forms on the phenotype of NIH 3T3 cells. Cells transfected with cDNAs coding for either 18-kD bFGF (18-kD bFGF) or all four molecular forms (18, 22, 22.5, 24 kD; wild type [WT] bFGF) exhibit increased migration and decreased FGF receptor number compared to parental cells. However, migration and FGF receptor number of cells transfected with a cDNA coding only for high molecular weight bFGF (22, 22.5, and 24 kD; HMW bFGF) were similar to that of parental cells transfected with vector alone. Cells expressing HMW, 18 kD, or WT bFGF grew to high saturation densities in 10% serum. However, only cells expressing HMW or WT bFGF grew in low serum. Cell surface or metabolic labeling of the different cell types followed by immunoprecipitation with anti-bFGF antibody showed primarily cell surface-associated 18-kD bFGF. In addition, when cells expressing exclusively HMW bFGF were transfected with a cDNA coding for 18-kD bFGF, migration was increased, bFGF receptors were down-regulated, and 18-kD bFGF was found on the cell surface. Cells expressing 18-kD bFGF transfected with a cDNA encoding FGF receptor-2 lacking the COOH-terminal domain (dominant negative bFGF receptor) exhibited a flat morphology and decreases in migration and saturation density. Cells expressing HMW bFGF transfected with the dominant negative bFGF receptor continued to grow to a high saturation density, proliferated in low serum, and exhibited no morphological changes. These results indicate that increased cell migration and FGF receptor down-regulation are mediated by the extracellular interaction of 18-kD bFGF with its cell surface receptor. Growth in low serum may be stimulated by the intracellular action of HMW bFGF through mechanisms independent of the presence of a cell surface receptor. Thus, the different molecular forms of bFGF may act through distinct but convergent pathways.

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