The tau gene encodes a protein (Tau) that is a major neuronal microtubule-associated protein localized mostly in axons. It has microtubule-binding and tubulin-polymerizing activity in vitro and is thought to make short crossbridges between axonal microtubules. Further, tau-transfected non-neuronal cells extend long axon-like processes in which microtubule bundles resembling those in axons are formed. In contrast, tau antisense oligonucleotides selectively suppress axonal elongation in cultured neurons. Thus tau is thought to be essential for neuronal cell morphogenesis, especially axonal elongation and maintenance. To test this hypothesis, we used gene targeting to produce mice lacking the tau gene. We show that the nervous system of tau-deficient mice appears to be normal immunohistologically. Furthermore, axonal elongation is not affected in cultured neurons. But in some small-calibre axons, microtubule stability is decreased and microtubule organization is significantly changed. We observed an increase in microtubule-associated protein 1A which may compensate for the functions of tau in large-calibre axons. Our results argue against the suggested role of tau in axonal elongation but confirm that it is crucial in the stabilization and organization of axonal microtubules in a certain type of axon.
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