Actin, vimentin, desmin, and tropomyosin distribution in rat aortic endothelial and smooth muscle cells has been studied during development using fetal (18 to 20 days of gestation), and 5- and 14-day-, and 5-, and 12-week-old rats. Endothelial cells of newborn animals actively replicate and contain many actin stress fibers, whereas, in adult animals, replication is minimal and actin stress fibers are rare. The actin, vimentin, desmin, and tropomyosin content of smooth muscle cells increases gradually from fetal to adult animals. The number of desmin-containing cells also increases from 13% in fetal rats to 51% in adult rats. The beta-actin isoform is predominant in fetal and newborn animals, but gradually the alpha-isoform becomes quantitatively the most important, as seen by bidimensional polyacrylamide gels. Several analogies exist between the features of developing smooth muscle and what is known for developing striated muscle cells. The evolution of cytoskeletal features from fetal to adult animals is remarkably the opposite of what takes place in: (1) rat aortic smooth muscle cells proliferating after an endothelial injury, (2) human arterial smooth muscle cells present in atheromas, and (3) actively growing rat aortic smooth muscle cells in vitro. Thus, the assumption that pathological or cultured smooth muscle cells are "dedifferentiated" is supported by our biochemical observations.
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