Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) promotes the survival of a subpopulation of non-neuronal cells developing from trunk neural crest. It was therefore important to determine whether this factor is present in the nervous system at early developmental stages. Immunocytochemistry using specific polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies was combined with three highly sensitive assays: bFGF-induced proliferation of bovine adrenal cortex-derived capillary endothelial cells (ACE), a radioimmunoassay for bFGF (RIA) and Western blot analysis. bFGF immunoreactivity was localized to the cytoplasm of neuroepithelial cells derived from embryonic day 2 (E2) quail neural tubes and cultured for one day in a chemically defined medium. Specific staining was observed in young sensory neurons in cultures of neural crest clusters as well as in a subpopulation of non-neuronal cells. In cultured E7 dorsal root ganglia, immunostaining was confined to neuronal cell bodies and fibers. In situ, staining of spinal cord and ganglionic neurons appeared on E6 and increased in intensity towards E10. Various mesoderm-derived structures such as the limb buds, the mesenchyme dorsal to the neural tube, the vertebral muscles and cartilage showed specific staining patterns in addition to neural tissue. In agreement with the results of immunocytochemical studies, 1.4ng bFGF per mg protein was detected in spinal cord extracts by RIA as early as E3, its concentration increased to 8.0 ng mg-1 on E5 and then to a maximum of 18.0 ng mg-1 protein on E10, this was followed by a subsequent decrease in concentration in older embryos. On the other hand, high levels of bFGF were present in vertebral tissues from E10 onwards. Extracts of immunopositive tissues were subjected to heparin-Sepharose affinity chromatography and eluted in a stepwise salt gradient. Fractions that eluted from the columns at 2 M NaCl contained a bFGF-like protein as revealed by their ability to stimulate the proliferation of ACE cells and by Western blot analysis. These data demonstrate that bFGF is expressed during early nervous system development in both central and peripheral neurons.

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