In lymphocytes, the cytoskeletal protein spectrin exhibits two organizational states. Because the plasma membrane lipids of lymphocytes also display two organizational states, it was asked whether there is a relation between the organization of spectrin and of membrane lipids. When mouse thymocytes were stained with merocyanine 540 (MC540), a fluorescent lipophilic probe that binds preferentially to loosely packed, disorganized lipid bilayers, some cells fluoresced brightly and some only dimly or not at all. When the same population was stained for spectrin by indirect immunofluorescence, the spectrin in some cells was uniformly distributed, while in others it was concentrated in a unipolar aggregate. Techniques enriching for mature thymocytes selected for cells displaying low MC540 fluorescence and aggregated spectrin, the same characteristics found in peripheral blood lymphocytes. Flow cytometric sorting of thymocytes based on MC540 phenotype simultaneously sorted them by spectrin phenotype. Finally, treatment with agents that alter the distribution of spectrin caused mature lymphocytes to display high MC540 fluorescence and uniform spectrin. Thus, a relation exists between the organizational states of spectrin and of membrane lipids in lymphocytes: aggregated spectrin is found in cells with tightly organized membrane lipids, uniform spectrin in those with loosely organized lipids. Spectrin may thus be involved in modulating membrane lipid organization in lymphocytes as it is in erythrocytes. Since loosely organized lipids may promote adhesion of blood cells to reticuloendothelial cells, spectrin may thereby be involved in transducing an internally generated adhesion signal to the lymphocyte surface.

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