We have investigated the uptake and release of [3H]gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by embryonic chick spinal cord cells maintained in culture. Cells dissociated from 4- or 7-d-old embryos were studied between 1 and 3 wk after plating. At 3 degrees C, [3H]GABA was accumulated by a high affinity (Km approximately equal to 4 microM) and a low affinity (Km approximately equal to 100 microM) mechanism. The high affinity transport was markedly inhibited in low Na+ media, by ouabain, at 0 degrees C, and by 2,4-diaminobutyric acid. Autoradiography, after incubation in 0.1 microM [3H]GABA, showed that approximately 50% (range = 30-70%) of the multipolar cells were labeled. These cells were neurons rather than glia; action potentials and/or synaptic potentials were recorded in cells subsequently found to be labeled. Non-neuronal, fibroblast-like cells and co-cultured myotubes were not labeled under the same conditions. The fact that not all of the neurons were labeled is consistent with the suggestion, based on studies of intact adult tissue, that high affinity transport of [3H]GABA may be unique to neurons that use GABA as a neurotransmitter. Our finding that none of fifteen physiologically identified cholinergic neurons, i.e., cells that innervated nearby myotubes, were heavily labeled after incubation in 0.1 microM [3H]GABA is significant in this regard. The newly taken up [3H]GABA was not metabolized in the short run. It was stored in a form that could be released when the neurons were depolarized in a high K+ (100 mM) medium. As expected for a neurotransmitter, the K+-evoked release was reversibly inhibited by reducing the extracellular Ca++/Mg++ ratio.

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