Alexander disease is a fatal neurological illness characterized by white-matter degeneration and the formation of astrocytic cytoplasmic inclusions called Rosenthal fibers, which contain the intermediate filament glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), the small heat-shock proteins HSP27 and αB-crystallin, and ubiquitin. Many Alexander-disease patients are heterozygous for one of a set of point mutations in the GFAP gene, all of which result in amino acid substitutions. The biological effects of the most common alteration, R239C, were tested by expressing the mutated protein in cultured cells by transient transfection. In primary rat astrocytes and Cos-7 cells, the mutant GFAP was incorporated into filament networks along with the endogenous GFAP and vimentin, respectively. In SW13Vim- cells, which have no endogenous cytoplasmic intermediate filaments, wild-type human GFAP frequently formed filamentous bundles, whereas the R239C GFAP formed 'diffuse' and irregular patterns. Filamentous bundles of R239C GFAP were sometimes formed in SW13Vim- cells when wild-type GFAP was co-transfected. Although the presence of a suitable coassembly partner (vimentin or GFAP) reduced the potential negative effects of the R239C mutation on GFAP network formation, the mutation affected the stability of GFAP in cells in a dominant fashion. Extraction of transfected SW13Vim- cells with Triton-X-100-containing buffers showed that the mutant GFAP was more resistant to solubilization at elevated KCl concentrations. Both wild-type and R239C GFAP assembled into 10 nm filaments with similar morphology in vitro. Thus, although the R239C mutation does not appear to affect filament formation per se, the mutation alters the normal solubility and organization of GFAP networks.