The ultrastructure of the apical zone of lactating rat mammary epithelial cells was studied with emphasis on vesicle coat structures. Typical 40-60 nm ID "coated vesicles" were abundant, frequently associated with the internal filamentous plasma membrane coat or in direct continuity with secretory vesicles (SV) or plasma membrane proper. Bristle coats partially or totally covered membranes of secretory vesicles identified by their casein micelle content. This coat survived SV isolation. Exocytotic fusion of SV membranes and release of the casein micelles was observed. Frequently, regularly arranged bristle coat structures were identified in those regions of the plasma membrane that were involved in exocytotic processes. Both coated and uncoated surfaces of the casein-containing vesicles, as well as typical "coated vesicles", were frequently associated with microtubules and/or microfilaments. We suggest that coat materials of vesicles are related or identical to components of the internal coat of the surface membrane and that new plasma membrane and associated internal coat is produced concomitantly by fusion and integration of bristle coat moieties. Postexocytotic association of secreted casein micelles with the cell surface, mediated by finely filamentous extensions, provided a marker for the integrated vesicle membrane. An arrangement of SV with the inner surface of the plasma membrane is described which is characterized by regularly spaced, heabily stained membrane to membrane cross-bridges (pre-exocytotic attachment plaques). Such membrane-interconnecting elements may represent a form of coat structure important to recognition and interaction of membrane surfaces.

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