The origin and differentiation of Tetrahymena pyriformis food vacuolar membranes has been studied by freeze-fracture electron microscopy. By measuring the temperature needed to induce the onset of lipid phase separation (as inferred by the appearance of particle-free regions in replicas) and calculating the changes in average intramembrane particle distribution, a distinct modification of the vacuolar membrane could be observed from the time of its formation from disk-shaped vesicles to its maturation before egestion of its indigestible contents. Whereas the nascent vacuolar membrane first showed signs of phase separation at 9 degrees C, this temperature rose to 14 degrees C in the completed vacuole and then, after lysosomal fusion, eventually declined to 12 degrees C. The average membrane particle density on the PF face increased from 761 +/- 219 to 1,625 +/- 350 per micron 2 during membrane differentiation. Like other membranes of the cell, the vacuolar membrane underwent adaptive changes in its physical properties in cells maintained for several hours at low temperature. This exposure to low temperature caused an equal effect in vacuoles formed before, during, or after the temperature shift-down. Normal changes in the properties of the vacuolar membrane may have some bearing on its programmed sequence of fusion reactions.

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