Polyglutamylation is an important posttranslational modification of tubulin that is very active in nerve cells, where it accounts for the main factor responsible for tubulin heterogeneity. In the present work, we have analyzed quantitative and qualitative changes in glutamylated alpha- and beta-tubulin occurring during neuronal differentiation in culture. Glutamylated alpha- and beta-tubulin both markedly accumulate during this process with a time course remarkably similar to that observed in vivo during brain development. However, the characteristics of the glutamylation of the two subunits are not exactly the same. Glutamylated alpha-tubulin is already abundant in very young neurons and displays, at this stage, a wide range of its degree of glutamylation (1 to 6 glutamyl units present in the lateral polyglutamyl chain), which remains unchanged during the entire period of the culture. Glutamylated beta-tubulin is present at very low levels in young neurons and its accumulation during differentiation is accompanied by a progressive increase in its degree of glutamylation from 2 to 6 glutamyl units. Posttranslational incorporation of [3H]glutamate into alpha- and beta-tubulin decreases during differentiation, as well as the rate of the reverse deglutamylation reaction, suggesting that accumulation of glutamylated tubulin is accompanied by a decrease in the turnover of glutamyl units onto tubulin. Neuronal differentiation is also accompanied by an increase of other posttranslationally modified forms of tubulin, including acetylated and non-tyrosinatable alpha-tubulin, which can occur in combination with polyglutamylation and contributes to increase the complexity of tubulin in mature neurons.

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