Filamentous skeletons were liberated from isolated human erythrocyte membranes in Triton X-100, spread on fenestrated carbon films, negatively stained, and viewed intact and unfixed in the transmission electron microscope. Two forms of the skeleton were examined: (a) basic skeletons, stripped of accessory proteins with 1.5 M NaCl so that they contain predominantly polypeptide bands 1, 2, 4.1, and 5; and (b) unstripped skeletons, which also bore accessory proteins such as ankyrin and band 3 and small plaques of residual lipid. Freshly prepared skeletons were highly condensed. Incubation at low ionic strength and in the presence of dithiothreitol for an hour or more caused an expansion of the skeletons, which greatly increased the visibility of their elements. The expansion may reflect the opening of spectrin from a compact to an elongated disposition. Expanded skeletons appeared to be organized as networks of short actin filaments joined by multiple (5-8) spectrin tetramers. In unstripped preparations, globular masses were observed near the centers of the spectrin filaments, probably corresponding to complexes of ankyrin with band 3 oligomers. Some of these globules linked pairs of spectrin filaments. Skeletons prepared with a minimum of perturbation had thickened actin protofilaments, presumably reflecting the presence of accessory proteins. The length of these actin filaments was highly uniform, averaging 33 +/- 5 nm. This is the length of nonmuscle tropomyosin. Since there is almost enough tropomyosin present to saturate the F-actin, our data support the hypothesis that tropomyosin may determine the length of actin protofilaments in the red cell membrane.

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