The distribution of alpha-dystroglycan (alpha DG) relative to acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) and neural agrin was examined by immunofluorescent staining with mAb IIH6 in cultures of nerve and muscle cells derived from Xenopus embryos. In Western blots probed with mAb IIH6, alpha DG was evident in membrane extracts of Xenopus muscle but not brain. alpha DG immunofluorescence was present at virtually all synaptic clusters of AChRs and neural agrin. Even microclusters of AChRs and agrin at synapses no older than 1-2 h (the earliest examined) had alpha DG associated with them. alpha DG was also colocalized at the submicrometer level with AChRs at nonsynaptic clusters that have little or no agrin. The number of large (> 4 microns) nonsynaptic clusters of alpha DG, like the number of large nonsynaptic clusters of AChRs, was much lower on innervated than on noninnervated cells. When mAb IIH6 was included in the culture medium, the large nonsynaptic clusters appeared fragmented and less compact, but the accumulation of agrin and AChRs along nerve-muscle contacts was not prevented. It is concluded that during nerve-muscle synaptogenesis, alpha DG undergoes the same nerve-induced changes in distribution as AChRs. We propose a diffusion trap model in which the alpha DG-transmembrane complex participates in the anchoring and recruitment of AChRs and alpha DG during the formation of synaptic as well as nonsynaptic AChR clusters.

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