Cells cultured on thin plastic (e.g. Formvar, Teflon, polycarbonate) membranes can be clearly imaged from the side in vivo by video microscopy. We have used this flexible-substratum technique to examine the behaviour and properties of primary cilia in confluent cultures of the kidney epithelial cell lines PtK1, PtK2, LLC-PK1, MDCK and BSC-40. In these cells primary cilia appear as rigid rods, up to 55 micron long, which project at various angles from the dorsal cell surface. The length distribution of primary cilia in confluent cultures is a distinct characteristic of each established kidney cell line examined, with LLC-PK1 exhibiting three distinct length populations. Primary cilia of kidney cell lines bend passively in response to flow but do not display propagated bending or vortical motions. Up to 26% of the cilia in the cell types examined possess one or more conspicuous swellings along the ciliary shaft. Treatment with 0.05% trypsin, which is sufficient to cause cell rounding, does not induce the resorption or shedding of the cilium. These direct observations demonstrate that kidney epithelial-cell primary cilia are non-motile and longer than previously thought, and suggest that their length represents a phenotypic marker for each cell line.

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