The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) differs from other epithelia in that the apical surface is not free; instead, it interacts with both photoreceptors and a specialized extracellular material, the interphotoreceptor matrix. Biochemical characterization of the apical and basolateral surfaces of RPE in adult rat eye cups, using a novel in situ biotinylation assay, revealed very different protein compositions and identified a major surface antigen, RET-PE2, with a predominantly apical distribution (approximately 74%). The apical polarity of RET-PE2 was confirmed by immunofluorescence and laser scanning confocal microscopy. In striking contrast, RET-PE2 antigen was preferentially basolateral in primary cultures derived from adult rat RPE and in an immortalized RPE cell line (RPE-J). Under all conditions, RET-PE2 was highly soluble in Triton X-100 (> 81% at 4 degrees C), suggesting that its redistribution was not dependent on changes in cytoskeletal interactions. Analysis of the localization of RET-PE2 in normal rats at postnatal (PN) days 1, 7, and 14 indicated that RET-PE2 redistributes from predominantly basolateral to predominantly apical during that time. Since photoreceptors develop during the first two weeks after birth in the rat, our results suggest that the apical redistribution of RET-PE2 is dependent on the establishment of adult interactions between the RPE and the neural retina and/or the interphotoreceptor matrix, either via direct contacts or through alterations in the intracellular sorting patterns of RPE cells.

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