We have indirectly analyzed the role of tau in generating the highly organized microtubule (MT) array of the axon. Axons contain MT arrays of uniform polarity orientation, plus ends distal to the cell body (Heidemann, S. R., J. M. Landers, and M. A. Hamborg. 1981. J. Cell Biol. 91:661-673). Surprisingly, these MTs do not radiate from a single discrete nucleating structure in the cell body (Sharp, G. A., K. Weber, and M. Osborn. 1982. Eur. J. Cell Biol. 29: 97-103), but rather stop and start at multiple sites along the length of the axon (Bray, D., and M. B. Bunge. 1981. J. Neurocytol. 10:589-605). When Sf9 ovarian cells are induced to express high levels of tau protein, they develop cellular processes which are similar in appearance to axons and which contain dense arrays of MTs (Knops, J., K. S. Kosik, G. Lee, J. D. Pardee, L. Cohen-Gould, and L. McConlogue. 1991. J. Cell Biol. 114:725-734). We have analyzed the organization of MTs within these arrays, and determined it to be similar, but not identical, to the organization of MTs within the axon. The caliber, MT number, and MT density vary significantly from process to process, but on average are manyfold higher in the tau-induced processes than typically found in axons. Greater than 89% of the MTs in the processes are oriented with their plus ends distal to the cell body, and this proportion is even higher in the processes that are most similar to axons with regard to caliber, MT number, and MT density. Similar to the situation in the axon, MTs are discontinuous along the length of the tau-induced processes, and do not emanate from any observable nucleating structure in the cell body. We have also identified bundles of MTs throughout the cell bodies of the Sf9 cells induced to express tau. Similar to the MT arrays in the processes, these MT bundles are not visibly associated with any other cytological structures that might regulate their polarity orientation. Nevertheless, these bundles consist of MTs most (greater than 82%) of which have the same polarity orientation. Collectively, these results suggest that tau may play a fundamental role in generating MT organization in the axon. In particular, a key property of tau may be to bundle MTs preferentially with the same polarity orientation.

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