We have used antibodies to identify Schwann cells and oligodendrocytes and to study the expression of myelin-specific glycolipids and proteins in these cells isolated from perinatal rats. Our findings suggest that only Schwann cells which have been induced to myelinate make detectable amounts of galactocerebroside (GC), sulfatide, myelin basic protein (BP), or the major peripheral myelin glycoprotein (P0). When rat Schwann cells were cultured, they stopped making detectable amounts of these myelin molecules, even when the cells were associated with neurites in short-term explant cultures of dorsal root ganglion. In contrast, oligodendrocytes in dissociated cell cultures of neonatal optic nerve, corpus callosum, or cerebellum continued to make GC, sulfatide and BP for many weeks, even in the absence of neurons. These findings suggest that while rat Schwann cells require a continuing signal from appropriate axons to make detectable amounts of myelin-specific glycolipids and proteins, oligodendrocytes do not. Schwann cells and oligodendrocytes also displayed very different morphologies in vitro which appeared to reflect their known differences in myelinating properties in vivo. Since these characteristic morphologies are maintained when Schwann cells and oligodendrocytes were grown together in mixed cultures and in the absence of neurons, we concluded that they are intrinsic properties of these two different myelin-forming cells.

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