Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells grow as differentiated, epithelial colonies that display tissue-like organization. We examined the structural elements underlying the colony morphology in situ using three consecutive extractions that produce well-defined fractions for both microscopy and biochemical analysis. First, soluble proteins and phospholipid were removed with Triton X-100 in a physiological buffer. The resulting skeletal framework retained nuclei, dense cytoplasmic filament networks, intercellular junctional complexes, and apical microvillar structures. Scanning electron microscopy showed that the apical cell morphology is largely unaltered by detergent extraction. Residual desmosomes, as can be seen in thin sections, were also well-preserved. The skeletal framework was visualized in three dimensions as an unembedded whole mount that revealed the filament networks that were masked in Epon-embedded thin sections of the same preparation. The topography of cytoskeletal filaments was relatively constant throughout the epithelial sheet, particularly across intercellular borders. This ordering of epithelial skeletal filaments across contiguous cell boundaries was in sharp contrast to the more independent organization of networks in autonomous cells such as fibroblasts. Further extraction removed the proteins of the salt-labile cytoskeleton and the chromatin as separate fractions, and left the nuclear matrix-intermediate filament (NM-IF) scaffold. The NM-IF contained only 5% of total cellular protein, but whole mount transmission electron microscopy and immunofluorescence showed that this scaffold was organized as in the intact epithelium. Immunoblots demonstrate that vimentin, cytokeratins, desmosomal proteins, and a 52,000-mol-wt nuclear matrix protein were found almost exclusively in the NM-IF scaffold. Vimentin was largely perinuclear while the cytokeratins were localized at the cell borders. The 52,000-mol-wt nuclear matrix protein was confined to the chromatin-depleted matrix and the desmosomal proteins were observed in punctate polygonal arrays at intercellular junctions. The filaments of the NM-IF were seen to be interconnected, via the desmosomes, over the entire epithelial colony. The differentiated epithelial morphology was reflected in both the cytoskeletal framework and the NM-IF scaffold.

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