The developing chicken embryo lens provides a unique model for examining the relationship between alpha6 integrin expression and cell differentiation, since multiple stages of differentiation are expressed concurrently at one stage of development. We demonstrate that alpha6 integrin is likely to mediate the inductive effects of laminin on lens differentiation as well as to function in a matrix-independent manner along the cell-cell interfaces of the differentiating cortical lens fiber cells. Both alpha6 isoform expression and its linkage to the cytoskeleton were regulated in a differentiation-specific manner. The association of alpha6 integrin with the Triton-insoluble cytoskeleton increased as the lens cells differentiated, reaching its highest levels in the cortical fiber region where the lens fiber cells are formed. In this region of the lens alpha6 integrin was uniquely localized along the cell-cell borders of the differentiating fiber cells, similar to beta1. alpha6beta4, the primary transmembrane protein of hemidesmosomes, is also expressed in the lens, but in the absence of hemidesmosomes. Differential expression of alpha6A and alpha6B isoforms with lens cell differentiation was seen at both the mRNA and the protein levels. RT-PCR studies demonstrated that alpha6B was the predominant isoform expressed both early in development, embryonic day 4, and in the epithelial regions of the day 10 embryonic lens. Isoform switching, with alpha6A now the predominant isoform, occurred in the fiber cell zones. Immunoprecipitation studies showed that alpha6B, which is characteristic of undifferentiated cells, was expressed by the lens epithelial cells but was dramatically reduced in the lens fiber zones. Expression of alpha6B began to drop as the cells initiated their differentiation and then dropped precipitously in the cortical fiber zone. In contrast, expression of the alpha6A isoform remained high until the cells became terminally differentiated. alpha6A was the predominant isoform expressed in the cortical fiber region. The down-regulation of alpha6B relative to alpha6A provides a developmental switch in the process of lens fiber cell differentiation.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.