The cuticle of the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a proteinaceous extracellular structure that is replaced at each of four postembryonic molts by the underlying hypodermis. The cuticles of the adult and three juvenile stages (L1, Dauer larva, L4) have been compared ultrastructurally and biochemically. Each cuticle has an annulated surface and comprises two main layers, an inner basal layer and an outer cortical layer. The adult cuticle has an additional clear layer which separates the basal and cortical layers and is traversed by regularly arranged columns of electron-dense material. The fine structure of the cortical layer is similar in cuticles from different stages while that of the basal layer is stage specific. Purified cuticles were obtained by sonication and treatment with sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) and their component proteins solubilized with a sulfhydryl reducing agent. The degree of cuticle solubility is stage specific and the insoluble structures for each cuticle were localized by electron microscopy. Analysis of 35S-labeled soluble cuticle proteins by SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis yields unique banding patterns for each stage. Most proteins are of high molecular weight (100–200 K) and are restricted to particular stages. Sixteen of the nineteen major proteins characterized are specifically degraded by bacterial collagenase. The results indicate that the different molts are not reiterative, but require the integration of both unique and shared gene functions. The potential use of stage-specific cuticle differences to identify and characterize regulatory genes controlling cuticle-type switching during development is discussed.
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