Small GTPases of the rab family control intracellular vesicle traffic in eukaryotic cells. Although the molecular mechanisms underlying the activity of the Rab proteins have not been elucidated yet, it is known that the function of these proteins is dependent on their precise subcellular localization. It has been suggested that Rab3a, which is mainly expressed in neural and endocrine cells, might regulate exocytosis. Recently, direct experimental evidence supporting this hypothesis has been obtained. Consistent with such a role for Rab3a in regulated exocytosis was the previously reported specific association of Rab3a with synaptic vesicles and with secretory granules in adrenal chromaffin cells. Since the latter result, based on subcellular fractionation, has been controversial, we have re-investigated the subcellular localization of this GTP-binding protein by using a combination of morphological techniques. Bovine chromaffin cells were labelled with an affinity-purified polyclonal anti-Rab3a antibody and analyzed by confocal microcopy. Rab3a was found to colocalize partially with dopamine beta-hydroxylase, a chromaffin granule marker. In agreement with this observation, immunoelectron microscopy revealed a specific staining of chromaffin granules. In addition to large dense core vesicles, some small vesicles were labelled. To eliminate the possibility that the staining was due to a Rab3a-related protein, we investigated by immunoelectron microscopy the localization of an epitope-tagged Rab3a expressed in rat PC12 cells. Secretory granules were specifically labelled, whereas clear microvesicles were not. These results provide further evidence supporting a specific association of the GTPase Rab3a with large dense core secretory vesicles.

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