The density of sodium channels was measured in growing and mature axons of the olfactory nerve of the bullfrog, using as a probe the drug saxitoxin (STX). The toxin binds to control nerves from adult animals in a saturable manner with a dissociation constant of approximately 23 nM at 4 degrees C and a capacity of 72 fmol/mg wet weight, equivalent to about five sites per square micrometer of axolemma. In growing nerves, obtained from adult frogs 4-5 wk following removal of the original nerve, the STX-binding capacity per wet weight of tissue is markedly reduced, to approximately 25% of control values, and appears to decrease in the proximodistal direction. STX-binding data, expressed as STX/mg wet weight, was converted to STX/micron 2 of axolemma using stereologically derived values of membrane area per milligram wet weight of nerve. The axolemmal content (area/mg wet weight) of all regions of growing nerve is substantially decreased compared to controls, but increases in the proximodistal direction by 60%. These changes in axolemmal area result in calculated STX receptor densities (per unit axolemmal area) which, in distal regions, are approximately at the level of the mature nerve and, in proximal regions, are actually increased above controls by 50 to 70%. Upon comparing the axolemmal density of intramembrane particles, reported in the companion paper, with the calculated density of STX receptors in both mature and growing nerves, we find a correlation between STX receptors and intramembrane particles with diameters of 11.5-14.0 nm. The growing axon's gradient of sodium channels and the shift from this gradient to a uniform distribution in the mature axon suggest (a) that sodium channels are inserted into the perikaryal plasmalemma and diffuse from there into the growing axolemma, and (b) that the axolemma undergoes functional maturation during growth.

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