Adhesive interactions between neurons and extracellular matrix (ECM) play a key role in neuronal pattern formation. The prominent role played by the extracellular matrix protein tenascin/cytotactin in the development of the nervous system, tied to its abundance, led us to speculate that brain may contain yet unidentified tenascin receptors. Here we show that the neuronal cell adhesion molecule contactin/F11, a member of the immunoglobulin(Ig)-superfamily, is a cell surface ligand for tenascin in the nervous system. Through affinity chromatography of membrane glycoproteins from chick brain on tenascin-Sepharose, we isolated a major cell surface ligand of 135 kD which we identified as contactin/F11 by NH2-terminal sequencing. The binding specificity between contactin/F11 and tenascin was demonstrated in solid-phase assays. Binding of immunopurified 125I-labeled contactin/F11 to immobilized tenascin is completely inhibited by the addition of soluble tenascin or contactin/F11, but not by fibronectin. When the fractionated isoforms of tenascin were used as substrates, contactin/F11 bound preferentially to the 190-kD isoform. This isoform differs in having no alternatively spliced fibronectin type III domains. Our results imply that the introduction of these additional domains in some way disrupts the contactin/F11 binding site on tenascin. To localize the binding site on contactin/F11, proteolytic fragments were generated and characterized by NH2-terminal sequencing. The smallest contactin/F11 fragment which binds tenascin is 45 kD and also begins with the contactin/F11 NH2-terminal sequence. This implies that contactin/F11 binds to tenascin through a site within the first three Ig-domains.

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