A series of specific macromolecules (tetanus toxin, cholera toxin, nerve growth factor [NGF], and several lectins) have been shown to be transported retrogradely with high selectivity from terminals to cell bodies in various types of neurons. Under identical experimental conditions (low protein concentrations injected), most other macromolecules, e.g. horseradish peroxidase (HRP), albumin, ferritin, are not transported in detectable amounts. In the present EM study, we demonstrate selective binding of tetanus toxin to the surface membrane of nerve terminals, followed by uptake and subsequent retorgrade axonal transport. Tetanus toxin or albumin was adsorbed to colloidal gold particles (diam 200 A). The complex was shown to be stable and well suited as an EM tracer. 1-4 h after injection into the anterior eye chamber of adult rats, tetanus toxin-gold particles were found to be selectively associated with membranes of nerve terminals and preterminal axons. Inside terminals and axons, the tracer was localized mainly in smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER)-like membrane compartments. In contrast, association of albumin-gold complexes with nervous structures was never observed, in spite of extensive uptake into fibroblasts. Electron microscope and biochemical experiments showed selective retrograde transport of tetanus toxin-gold complexes to the superior cervical ganglion. Specific binding to membrane components at nerve terminals and subsequent internalization and retrograde transport may represent an important pathway for macromolecules carrying information from target organs to the perikarya of their innervating neurons.

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