The nonciliated bronchiolar epithelial (Clara) cell of adult lung is commonly defined by two cellular components: abundant agranular endoplasmic reticulum (AER) and electron‐dense ovoid secretory granules. These reflect the Clara cell's proposed functions as the source of bronchiolar surface secretions and the site of xenobiotic metabolism via the cytochrome P‐450 monooxygenase system. Since previous studies have indicated that Clara cells may not attain a fully functional state until some weeks after birth, the present study was undertaken to characterize systematically the differentiation of this cell type during lung maturation. Lungs were fixed by airway infusion with glutaraldehyde/paraformaldehyde (550 mOsm, pH 7.4) from at least three male rabbits at each of the following ages: 24, 27, and 30 days fetal, and 0–1 day, 3–4 days, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 15, 17, and 25 weeks postnatal; and pieces were processed for transmission electron microscopy by a selective embedding procedure. Quantitation was performed on electron micrographs (at 15,750 x) of cell profiles, which included the base, apex, and nucleus. Volume fractions of constituents of a minumum of 30 cells per animal (8 weeks and younger) and 10 per animal in older groups, were estimated by point counting with a Weibel 168‐point test grid. Cell and nuclear size were estimated with a computerized digitizer (Zeiss Videoplan). Nonciliated cells of prenatal animals had large amounts of cytoplasmic glycogen (over 60% of the cell cytoplasm), few mitochondria (less than 15%), little granular endoplasmic reticulum (GER) (20%), minimal AER (less than 5%), and no granules. Postnatal animals 2 weeks of age and younger were similar, except for the presence of secretory granules and slightly more abundant AER (5 to 20%). By 4 weeks postnatal age, nonciliated cells resembled that of older animals with abundant apical AER (over 40%), secretory granules, little glycogen (11%), and GER (10%). We concluded that (1) the Clara cell is immature at birth; (2) differentiation occurs primarily during weeks 3 and 4 of postnatal life; (3) vast amounts of cytoplasmic glycogen are characteristic of the undifferentiated cell; and (4) four cellular constituents, AER, glycogen, mitochondria, and GER, undergo significant shifts in abundance during differentiation. These shifts appear to be in the sequence expected of a cell type undergoing the initiation of biosynthesis of secretory products and biogenesis of agranular endoplasmic reticulum.
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