The possibility that proteins are modified during axoplasmic transport in central nervous system axons was examined by analyzing neurofilament proteins (200,000, 140,000, and 70,000 mol wt) along the mouse primary optic pathway (optic nerve and optic tract). The major neurofilament proteins (NFPs) exhibited considerable microheterogeneity. At least three forms of the " 140,000" neurofilament protein differing in molecular weight by SDS PAGE (140,000-145,000 mol wt) were identified. The "140,000" proteins, and their counterparts in purified neurofilament preparations, displayed similar isoelectric points and the same peptide maps. The "140,000" NFPs exhibited regional heterogeneity when consecutive segments of the optic pathway were separately examined on polyacrylamide gels. Two major species (145,000 and 140,000 mol wt) were present along the entire length of the optic pathway. The third protein (143,000 mol wt) was absent proximally but became increasingly prominent in distal segments. After intravitreal injection of [(3)H]proline, newly synthesized radiolabeled proteins in the "140,000" mol wt region entered proximal mouse retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axons as two major species corresponding to the 145,000 and 14,000 mol wt NFPs observed on stained gels. When transported NFPs reached more distal axonal regions (30 d postinjection or longer), a 143,000 mol wt protein appeared that was similar in isoelectric point and peptide map to the 145,000 and 140,000 mol wt species. The results suggest that (a) the composition of CNS neurofilaments, particularly the "140,000" component, is more complex than previously recognized, that (b) retinal ganglion cell axons display regional differentiation with respect to these cytoskeletal proteins, and that (c) structural heterogeneity of "140,000" NFPs arises, at least in part, from posttranslational modification during axoplasmic transport. When excised but intact optic pathways were incubated in vitro at pH 7.4, a 143,000 NFP was rapidly formed by a calcium-dependent enzymatic process active at endogenous calcium levels. Changes in major proteins other than those in the 145,000-140,000 mol wt region were minimal. In optic pathways from mice injected intravitreally with L-[(3)H]proline, tritiated 143,000 mol wt NFP formed rapidly in vitro if radioactively labeled NFPs were present in distal RGC axonal regions (31 d postinjection). By contrast, no 143,000 mol wt NFP was generated if radioactively labeled NFPs were present proximally in RGC axons (6 d postinjection). The enzymatic process that generates 143,000 mol wt NFP in vitro, therefore, appears to have a nonuniform distribution along the RGC axons. The foregoing results and other observations, including the accompanying report (J. Cell Biol., 1982, 94:159-164), imply that CNS axons may be regionally specialized with respect to structure and function.

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