Initial studies are reported on the catecholamine metabolism of low-density cultures of dissociated primary sympathetic neurons. Radioactive tyrosine was used to study the synthesis and breakdown of catecholamines in the cultures. The dependence of catecholamine synthesis and accumulation on external tyrosine concentration was examined and a concentration which is near saturation, 30 µM, was chosen for further studies. The free tyrosine pool in the nerve cells equilibrated with extracellular tyrosine within 1 h; the total accumulation of tyrosine (free tyrosine plus protein, catecholamines, and metabolites) was linear for more than 24 h of incubation. Addition of biopterin, the cofactor of tyrosine hydroxylase, only slightly enhanced catecholamine biosynthesis by the cultured neurons. However, addition of reduced ascorbic acid, the cosubstrate for dopamine ß-hydroxylase, markedly stimulated the conversion of dopamine (DA) to norepinephrine (NE). Phenylalanine, like tyrosine, served as a precursor for some of the DA and NE produced by the cultures, but tyrosine always accounted for more than 90% of the catecholamines produced.

The DA pool labeled rapidly to a saturation level characteristic of the age of the culture. The NE pool filled more slowly and was much larger than the DA pool. The disappearance of radioactive NE and DA during chase experiments followed a simple exponential curve. Older cultures showed both more rapid production and more rapid turnover of the catecholamines than did younger cultures, suggesting a process of maturation.