J. Neurobiol. 44: 436-445 (2000)

Agrin fragments differentially induce ectopic aggregation of acetylcholine receptors in myotomal muscles of Xenopus embryos.

Earl W. Godfrey, Jeremy Roe, R. David Heathcote

Agrin is an extracellular synaptic protein that organizes the postsynaptic apparatus, including acetylcholine receptors (AChRs), of the neuromuscular junction. The COOH-terminal portion of agrin has full AChR-aggregating activity in culture, and includes three globular domains, G1, G2, and G3. Portions of the agrin protein containing these domains bind to different cell surface proteins of muscle cells, including a-dystroglycan (G1-G2) and heparan sulfate proteoglycans (G2), whereas the G3 domain is sufficient to aggregate AChRs. We sought to determine whether the G1 and G2 domains of agrin potentiate agrin activity in vivo, as they do in culture. Fragments from the COOH-terminal of a neuronal agrin isoform (4,8) containing G3, both G2 and G3, or all three G domains were overexpressed in Xenopus embryos during neuromuscular synapse formation in myotomal muscles. RNA encoding these fragments of rat agrin was injected into one-cell embryos. All three fragments increased the ectopic aggregation of AChRs in noninnervated regions near the center of myotomes. Surprisingly, ectopic aggregation was more pronounced after overexpression of the smallest fragment, which lacks the heparin- and a-dystroglycan-binding domains. Synaptic AChR aggregation was decreased in embryos overexpressing the fragments, suggesting a competition between endogenous agrin secreted by nerve terminals and exogenous agrin fragments secreted by muscle cells. These results suggest that binding of the larger agrin fragments to a-dystroglycan and/or heparan sulfate proteoglycans may sequester the fragments and inhibit their activity in embryonic muscle. These intermolecular interactions may regulate agrin activity and differentiation of the neuromuscular junction in vivo.