A specific and sensitive procedure has been developed that reliably localizes intracellular sites of free catalytic unit (C) dissociated from cAMP-dependent protein kinase. The method is based on a FITC conjugate (F:PKI) of affinity column-purified heat-stable protein inhibitor (PKI) of free C. The fidelity of this cytochemical probe was determined using cultures of Reuber H-35 hepatoma cells that had been stimulated for 2 h with 0.1 mM DBcAMP, or with diluent, then fixed with anhydrous acetone at -30 degrees C. In these preparations the F:PKI probe complexed with free C in cytoplasm, nucleolus, and, to a minor extent, in nucleoplasm. Binding of the F:PKI molecule to free C was competitively diminished by arginine analogues, guanidinium HCI and polyarginine, each used over a 2-log dose range. When the inhibitor's arginine residues were blocked by reaction with cyclohexanedione it no longer inhibited phosphotransferase activity of free C, and when fluorescinated it failed to localize C in stimulated cells. Similarly, when F:PKI was preabsorbed with excess pure C it no longer functioned as a cytochemical stain. Affinity column-purified antibody to free C also reduced significantly the ability of F:PKI to complex with C in cell cultures stimulated with 0.1 mM DBcAMP. 1 microgram of antibody reduced by approximately 10% the binding of F:PKI to all cell compartments while 5 microgram of antibody diminished binding by greater than 50%. Together, these results indicate that the F:PKI binds specifically, perhaps exclusively, to the catalytic units of cAMP-dependent protein kinase. The cytochemical procedure, unlike its biochemical counterparts, is able to locate the dissociation of cAMP-dependent protein kinase in individual cells of functionally or histologically complex cultures. Also, it reveals variations in the time- and dose-dependent activation of the kinase amongst clonal cells stimulated with cyclic nucleotide analogues or hormones.

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