Background: Growth cones at the tips of growing axons move along predetermined pathways to establish synaptic connections between neurons and their distant targets. To establish their orientation, growth cones continuously sample for, and respond to, guidance information provided by cell surfaces and the extracellular matrix. To identify specific guidance cues, growth cones have sensor molecules on their surface, which are expressed differentially during the temporospatial progress of axon outgrowth, at levels that depend on the pattern of neural activity. However, it has not been elucidated whether a change in gene expression can indeed change the molecular composition and, hence, the function of the sensor apparatus of growth cones.
Results: We have constructed adenoviral gene transfer vectors of the chicken growth cone sensor molecules axonin-1 and Ng-CAM. Using these vectors, we initiated the expression of axonin-1 and Ng-CAM in rat dorsal root ganglia explants during ongoing neurite outgrowth. Using specific surface immunodetection at varying time points after infection, we found that axonin-1 and Ng-CAM are transported directly to the growth cone and inserted exclusively in the growth cone membrane and not in the axolemma of the axon shaft. Furthermore, we found that axonin-1 and Ng-CAM do not diffuse retrogradely, suggesting that the sensor molecules are integrated into multimolecular complexes in the growth cone.
Conclusions: During axon outgrowth, the pathway sensor apparatus of the growth cone is continuously updated by newly synthesized sensor molecules that originate directly from the transcription/translation machinery. Changes in the expression of sensor molecules may have a direct impact, therefore, on the exploratory function of the growth cone.