In the developing retina, retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axons elongate toward the optic fissure, even though no obvious directional restrictions exist. Previous studies indicate that axon-matrix interactions are important for retinal ganglion cell axon elongation, but the factors that direct elongation are unknown. Chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (CS-PG), a component of the extracellular matrix, repels elongating dorsal root ganglion (DRG) axons in vitro and is present in vivo in the roof plate of the spinal cord, a structure that acts as a barrier to DRG axons during development. In this study, we examined whether CS-PG may regulate the pattern of retinal ganglion cell outgrowth in the developing retina. Immunocytochemical analysis showed that CS-PG was present in the innermost layers of the developing rat retina. The expression of CS-PG moved peripherally with retinal development, always remaining at the outer edge of the front of the developing axons. CS-PG was no longer detectable with immunocytochemical techniques when RGC axon elongation in the retina is complete. Results of studies in vitro showed that CS-PG, isolated from bovine nasal cartilage and chick limb, was inhibitory to elongating RGC axons and that RGC growth cones were more sensitive to CS-PG than were DRG neurites tested at the same concentrations of CS-PG. The behavior of retinal growth cones as they encounter CS-PG was characterized using time-lapse video microscopy. Filopodia of the RGC growth cones extended to and sampled the CS-PG repeatedly. With time, the growth cones turned to avoid outgrowth on the CS-PG and grew only on laminin. While numerous studies have shown the presence of positive factors within the retina that may guide developing RGC axons, this is the first demonstration of an inhibitory or repelling molecule in the retina that may regulate axon elongation. Taken together, these data suggest that the direction of RGC outgrowth in the retina may be regulated by the proper ratio of growth-promoting molecules, such as laminin, to growth-inhibiting molecules, like CS-PG, present in the correct pattern and concentrations along the retinal ganglion cell pathway.

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