Localization of the two main components of the Ca2+-dependent proteolytic system has been investigated in human neuroblastoma LAN-5 cells. Using a monoclonal antibody which recognizes the N-terminal calpastatin domain, it has been shown that this inhibitory protein is almost completely confined in two granule-like structures not surrounded by membranes. Similar calpastatin distribution has been found in other human and in murine cell types, indicating that aggregation of calpastatin is a general property and not an exclusive characteristic of neuronal-like cells. The existence of such calpastatin aggregates is confirmed by the kinetics of calpastatin-activity release during rat liver homogenization, which does not correspond to the rate of appearance of cytosolic proteins or to the disruption of membrane-surrounded organelles. Calpastatin distribution is affected by the intracellular increase in free Ca2+, which results in calpastatin progressively becoming a soluble protein. However, calpain is distributed in the soluble cell fraction and, in activating conditions, partially accumulates on the plasma membrane. Similar behaviour has been observed in calpastatin localization in LAN-5 cells induced with retinoic acid, suggesting that the proteolytic system is activated during the differentiation process of these cells. The involvement of calpastatin in controlling calpain activity, rather than its activation process, and the utilization of changes in calpastatin localization as a marker of activation of the system is discussed.

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