To examine the function of the alpha 6 beta 4 integrin we have determined its ligand-binding ability and overexpressed two potentially dominant negative mutant beta 4 subunits, lacking either the cytoplasmic or extracellular domain, in bladder epithelial 804G cells. The results of cell adhesion and radioligand-binding assays showed that alpha 6 beta 4 is a receptor for several laminin isoforms, including laminin 1, 2, 4, and 5. Overexpression of the tail-less or head-less mutant beta 4 subunit did not suppress alpha 6 beta 4-mediated adhesion to laminins, as both types of transfectants adhered to these ligands in the presence of blocking anti-beta 1 antibodies as well as the controls. However, immunofluorescence experiments indicated that the endogenous alpha 6 beta 4 integrin and other hemidesmosomal markers were not concentrated in hemidesmosomes in cells overexpressing tail-less beta 4, while the distribution of these molecules was not altered in cells overexpressing the head-less subunit. Electron microscopic studies confirmed that cells overexpressing tail-less beta 4 had a drastically reduced number of hemidesmosomes, while cells expressing the head-less subunit had a normal number of these structures. Thus, expression of a tail-less, but not a head-less mutant beta 4 subunit leads to a dominant negative effect on hemidesmosome assembly without suppressing initial adhesion to laminins. We conclude that the alpha 6 beta 4 integrin binds to several laminins and plays an essential role in the assembly and/or stability of hemidesmosomes, that alpha 6 beta 4-mediated adhesion and hemidesmosome assembly have distinct requirements, and that it is possible to use a dominant negative approach to selectively interfere with a specific function of an integrin.

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