Previous work has shown that cultured keratinocytes do not form desmosomes at low [Ca2+] (less than 0.1 mM) but may be induced to do so by raising [Ca2+] to physiological levels (1.8-2 mM). Here, fluorescent antibody staining with specific anti-desmosomal antibodies and electron microscopy have been used to determine whether Ca2+-induced desmosome formation also occurs in simple epithelial cells. Both Madin-Darby canine and bovine kidney cells (MDCK and MDBK) exhibit Ca2+-induced desmosome formation, but there are significant differences between them. MDCK cells resemble keratinocytes in showing rapid desmosome formation characterized by the simultaneous appearance of four desmosomal antigens at the cell periphery within 15–20 min of raising the [Ca2+]. In contrast MDBK cells take between 7 and 8 h to form desmosomes after Ca2+ switching, and this is characterized by slow appearance of two desmosomal antigens, the 175–164(X 10(3)) Mr glycoprotein and desmoplakin, at the cell periphery. Differences in the pattern of staining for desmosomal antigens between the two cell types in low and high [Ca2+] are described and discussed in relation to desmosome formation and internalization. Triton X-100 extractability of desmosomal antigen staining is also considered. While most is non-extractable, staining for the glycoproteins known as desmocollins is completely extractable from MDCK cells in low [Ca2+], but that which reaches the cell periphery after Ca2+ switching becomes non-extractable. Although neither cell type forms desmosomes in low [Ca2+], both possess zonulae adhaerentes, suggesting a difference in Ca2+ requirement for formation of these two junctions.

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