Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) is a neurotrophic polypeptide, distantly related to transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), originally isolated by virtue of its ability to induce dopamine uptake and cell survival in cultures of embryonic ventral midbrain dopaminergic neurons, and more recently shown to be a potent neurotrophic factor for motorneurons. The biological activities and distribution of this molecule outside the central nervous system are presently unknown. We report here on the mRNA expression, biological activities and initial receptor binding characterization of GDNF and a shorter spliced variant termed GDNF beta in different organs and peripheral neurons of the developing rat. Both GDNF mRNA forms were found to be most highly expressed in developing skin, whisker pad, kidney, stomach and testis. Lower expression was also detected in developing skeletal muscle, ovary, lung, and adrenal gland. Developing spinal cord, superior cervical ganglion (SCG) and dorsal root ganglion (DRG) also expressed low levels of GDNF mRNA. Two days after nerve transection, GDNF mRNA levels increased dramatically in the sciatic nerve. Overall, GDNF mRNA expression was significantly higher in peripheral organs than in neuronal tissues. Expression of either GDNF mRNA isoform in insect cells resulted in the production of indistinguishable mature GDNF polypeptides. Purified recombinant GDNF promoted neurite outgrowth and survival of embryonic chick sympathetic neurons. GDNF produced robust bundle-like, fasciculated outgrowth from chick sympathetic ganglion explants. Although GDNF displayed only low activity on survival of newborn rat SCG neurons, this protein was found to increase the expression of vasoactive intestinal peptide and preprotachykinin-A mRNAs in cultured SCG neurons. GDNF also promoted survival of about half of the neurons in embryonic chick nodose ganglion and a small subpopulation of embryonic sensory neurons in chick dorsal root and rat trigeminal ganglia. Embryonic chick sympathetic neurons expressed receptors for GDNF with Kd 1-5 x 10(-9) M, as measured by saturation and displacement binding assays. Our findings indicate GDNF is a new neurotrophic factor for developing peripheral neurons and suggest possible non-neuronal roles for GDNF in the developing reproductive system.

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