We used the loose patch voltage clamp technique and rhodamine-conjugated alpha-bungarotoxin to study the regulation of Na channel (NaCh) and acetylcholine receptor (AChR) distribution on dissociated adult skeletal muscle fibers in culture. The aggregate of AChRs and NaChs normally found in the postsynaptic membrane of these cells gradually fragmented and dispersed from the synaptic region after several days in culture. This dispersal was the result of the collagenase treatment used to dissociate the cells, suggesting that a factor associated with the extracellular matrix was responsible for maintaining the high concentration of AchRs and NaChs at the neuromuscular junction. We tested whether the basal lamina protein agrin, which has been shown to induce the aggregation of AChRs on embryonic myotubes, could similarly influence the distribution of NaChs. By following identified fibers, we found that agrin accelerated both the fragmentation of the endplate AChR cluster into smaller patches as well as the appearance of new AChR clusters away from the endplate. AChR patches which were fragments of the original endplate retained a high density of NaChs, but no new NaCh hotspots were found elsewhere on the fiber, including sites of newly formed AChR clusters. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that extracellular signals regulate the distribution of AChRs and NaChs on skeletal muscle fibers. While agrin probably serves this function for the AChR, it does not appear to play a role in the regulation of the NaCh distribution.

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