The human natural killer-1 (HNK-1) carbohydrate epitope, composed of a unique sulfated trisaccharide (HSO3–3GlcAβ1–3Galβ1–4GlcNAc-R), is highly expressed during brain development and regulates higher brain function. However, it remains unclear which glycoprotein carries the HNK-1 epitope in the embryonic brain and the functional role it plays. Here, we showed that one of the major HNK-1 carrier proteins in the embryonic brain is tenascin-C (TNC), an extracellular matrix protein that regulates neurite outgrowth by interacting with the GPI-anchored protein contactin-1 (CNTN). Because the alternatively spliced fibronectin type-III (FNIII) repeats in TNC give rise to many isoforms and affect neuronal function, we evaluated neurite outgrowth of primary hippocampal neurons on purified recombinant FNIII repeats with or without the HNK-1 epitope as a substrate. We found that the presence of the HNK-1 epitope on the C domain of TNC promoted neurite outgrowth, and that this signal was mediated by CNTN, which is an HNK-1-expressing neuronal receptor. The neurite-promoting activity of the HNK-1 epitope on TNC required neuronal HNK-1 expression, which was defective in neurons lacking the glucuronyltransferases GlcAT-P and GlcAT-S. These results suggest that the HNK-1 epitope is a key modifier of TNC and CNTN in the regulation of embryonic brain development.
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