The intracellular mechanisms regulating the process of evoked neurotransmitter release were studied in the cloned neurosecretory cell line PC12. Various agents were employed that were known, from previous studies in other systems, to stimulate release in a manner either strictly dependent or independent of the concentration of extracellular Ca2+, [Ca2+]o. Three parameters were investigated in cells suspended in either Ca2+-containing or Ca2+-free Krebs-Ringer media: release of previously accumulated [3H]dopamine; average free cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentration, [Ca2+]i (measured by the quin2 technique); and cell ultrastructure, with special reference to the number and structure of secretion granules. The release induced by the ionophores transporting monovalent cations, X537A and monensin, occurred concomitantly with profound alterations of secretory granule structure (swelling and dissolution of the dense core). These results suggest that the effect of these drugs is due primarily to leakage of dopamine from granules to the cytoplasm and extracellular space. In contrast, the changes induced by other stimulatory drugs used concerned not the structure but the number of secretory granules, indicating that with these drugs stimulation of exocytosis is the phenomenon underlying the increased transmitter release. The release response induced by the Ca2+-ionophore ionomycin was dependent on [Ca2+]o, occurred rapidly, was concomitant with a marked rise of [Ca2+]i, and ceased after 1-2 min even though [Ca2+]i remained elevated for many minutes. 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol, 13-acetate and diacylglycerol (both of which are known as activators of protein kinase C) induced slow responses almost completely independent of [Ca2+]o and not accompanied by changes of [Ca2+]i. Combination of an activator of protein kinase C with a low concentration of ionomycin failed to modify the [Ca2+]i rise induced by the ionophore, but elicited a marked potentiation of the release response, which was two- to fourfold larger than the sum of the responses elicited separately by either drugs. Thus, activation of protein kinase C seems to play an important role in the regulation of exocytosis in neurosecretory cells, possibly by increasing and maintaining the sensitivity to Ca2+ of the intracellular apparatus regulating granule discharge by exocytosis.

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