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The alpha 6 beta 4 integrin is a receptor involved in the interaction of epithelial cells with basement membranes. This integrin is unique among the known integrins in that its beta 4 subunit has a large cytoplasmic domain. The function of this cytoplasmic domain is not known. In this paper we show that the beta 4 subunit undergoes proteolytic processing in cultured cells and provide evidence that this also happens in tissues. Immunoprecipitation experiments indicated that the cytoplasmic domain of beta 4 is susceptible to a calcium-dependent protease present in cellular extracts. In vitro assays with purified calpain showed that this enzyme can cleave beta 4 at two distinct sites in the cytoplasmic domain, generating truncated molecules of 165 and 130 kD. Immunoblotting experiments performed on cultured epithelial cells using an antibody to a peptide modeled after the COOH-terminus of the beta 4 subunit showed 70-kD fragments and several fragments of molecular masses between 185 and 115 kD. Similar fragments were detected in CHO cells transfected with the full-length beta 4 cDNA, but not in control transfected cells or in cells transfected with a mutant cDNA lacking the epitope of the cytoplasmic peptide antibody. The sizes of the fragments indicated that both the intracellular and extracellular domains of beta 4 are proteolytically processed. To examine the processing of the beta 4 subunit in epithelial tissues in vivo, human skin frozen sections were stained with antibodies to the ectodomain or the cytoplasmic domain of beta 4. The distinct staining patterns obtained with the two types of antibodies provided evidence that beta 4 is proteolytically processed in vivo in skin. Analogous experiments performed on sections of the cornea suggested that beta 4 is not proteolytically processed at a detectable level in this tissue. Thus, cleavage of the beta 4 subunit occurs in a tissue-specific fashion. These results suggest a potential mechanism of modulating the activities of the alpha 6 beta 4 integrin.