We have studied two aspects of the plasma membrane of hepatocytes, highly differentiated epithelial cells that exhibit a particular and complex polarity. Using a genetic approach, we have distinguished between the expression/regulation of proteins specific for all three hepatocyte membrane domains and their organization into discrete domains. For this analysis we used a panel of previously isolated cell clones, derived from the differentiated rat hepatoma line H4IIEC3, and that present different expression patterns for liver-specific genes. This panel was composed of (1) differentiated clones, (2) chromosomally reduced hepatoma-fibroblast hybrids characterized by a pleiotropic extinction/reexpression of liver-specific genes and (3) dedifferentiated variant and revertant clones. The expression of 16 hepatocyte membrane polarity markers was studied by western blotting and immunolocalization. Even though cells of differentiated clones express all of these polarity markers, they are not polarized, and are therefore suitable for studying the regulation of plasma membrane protein expression, and for identifying gene products implicated in the establishment of membrane polarity. In hepatoma-fibroblast hybrids the expression of four markers, three apical (dipeptidylpeptidase IV, alkaline phosphodiesterase B10 and polymeric IgA receptor) and one lateral (E-cadherin), is down-regulated in extinguished clones and restored in reexpressing subclones, as previously reported for liver-specific functions. The dipeptidylpeptidase IV mRNA was undetectable or strongly reduced in extinguished hybrids, but expressed at a robust level in some of the reexpressing clones. Concerning the dedifferentiated variants, each has its own pattern of membrane marker expression (loss of expression of three to six markers), that differs from that of extinguished hybrids. Revertant cells express all of the membrane markers examined. Among all of these hepatoma derivatives, only cells of reexpressing hybrids are polarized, and form bile canaliculi-like structures, with spherical and even, for one clone, long tubular and branched forms. All apical markers examined are confined in these canalicular structures, whereas the other markers are excluded from them, and present on the rest of the membrane (basolateral markers) or at the cell-cell contacts (lateral markers). Cells of reexpressing hybrids also express simple epithelial polarity. Thus the expression of only a few hepatocyte-domain-specific plasma membrane proteins is subject to down-regulation, as is the case for liver-specific genes so far studied, and the expression of polarity markers and the formation of poles are dissociable events.

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