In a previous report it was shown that the replacement of native erythrocyte phosphatidylcholine (PC) with different PC species which have defined acyl chain compositions can lead to morphological changes (Kuypers, F.A., W. Berendsen, B. Roelofsen, J. A. F. Op den Kamp, and L.L.M. van Deenen, 1984, J. Cell Biol., 99:2260-2267). It was proposed that differences in molecular shape between the introduced PC species and normal erythrocyte PC caused the membrane to bend outwards or inwards, depending on the shape of the PC exchanged. To support this proposal, two requirements would have to be fulfilled: the exchange reaction would take place only with the outer lipid monolayer of the erythrocyte, and the extent of lipid transbilayer movement would be restricted. If this theory is correct, any treatment causing unilateral changes in lipid molecular shape should lead to predictable morphological changes. Since this hypothesis is a refinement of the coupled bilayer hypothesis, but so far lacks experimental support, we have sought other means to change lipid molecular shape unilaterally. Shape changes of human erythrocytes were induced by the replacement of native PC by various PC species using a phosphatidylcholine-specific transfer protein: by hydrolysis of phospholipids in intact cells using sphingomyelinase C or phospholipase A2, and by the combination of both procedures. The morphological changes were predictable; additive when both treatments were applied, and explicable on the basis of the geometry of the lipid molecules involved. The results strongly support the notion that lipid molecular shape affects erythrocyte morphology.

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