The immature processes that give rise to both axons and dendrites contain microtubules (MTs) that are uniformly oriented with their plus-ends distal to the cell body, and this pattern is preserved in the developing axon. In contrast, developing dendrites gradually acquire nonuniform MT polarity orientation due to the addition of a subpopulation of oppositely oriented MTs (Baas, P. W., M. M. Black, and G. A. Banker. 1989. J. Cell Biol. 109:3085-3094). In theory, these minus-end-distal MTs could be locally nucleated and assembled within the dendrite itself, or could be transported into the dendrite after their nucleation within the cell body. To distinguish between these possibilities, we exposed cultured hippocampal neurons to nanomolar levels of vinblastine after one of the immature processes had developed into the axon but before the others had become dendrites. At these levels, vinblastine acts as a kinetic stabilizer of MTs, inhibiting further assembly while not substantially depolymerizing existing MTs. This treatment did not abolish dendritic differentiation, which occurred in timely fashion over the next two to three days. The resulting dendrites were flatter and shorter than controls, but were identifiable by their ultrastructure, chemical composition, and thickened tapering morphology. The growth of these dendrites was accompanied by a diminution of MTs from the cell body, indicating a net transfer of MTs from one compartment into the other. During this time, minus-end-distal microtubules arose in the experimental dendrites, indicating that new MT assembly is not required for the acquisition of nonuniform MT polarity orientation in the dendrite. Minus-end-distal microtubules predominated in the more proximal region of experimental dendrites, indicating that most of the MTs at this stage of development are transported into the dendrite with their minus-ends leading. These observations indicate that transport of MTs from the cell body is an essential feature of dendritic development, and that this transport establishes the nonuniform polarity orientation of MTs in the dendrite.

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