Complexes of plasma membrane segments with desmosomes and attached tonofilaments were separated from the stratum spinosum cells of calf muzzle by means of moderately alkaline buffers of low ionic strength and mechanical homogenization. These structures were further fractionated by the use of various treatments including sonication, sucrose gradient centrifugation, and extraction with buffers containing high concentrations of salt, urea, citric acid, or detergents. Subfractions enriched in desmosome-tonofilament-complexes and tonofilament fragments were studied in detail. The desmosome structures such as the midline, the trilaminar membrane profile, and the desmosomal plaque appeared well preserved and were notably resistant to the various treatments employed. Fractions containing desmosome-tonofilament complexes were invariably dominated by the nonmembranous proteins of the tonofilaments which appeared as five major polypeptide bands (apparent molecular weights: 48,000; 51,000; 58,000; 60,000; 68,000) present in molar ratios of approx. 2:1:1:2:2. Four of these polypeptide bands showed electrophoretic mobilities similar to those of prekeratin polypeptides from bovine hoof. However, the largest polypeptide (68,000 mol wt) migrated significantly less in polyacrylamide gels than the largest component of the hoof prekeratin (approximately 63,000 mol wt). In addition, a series of minor bands, including carbohydrate-containing proteins, were identified and concluded to represent constituents of the desmosomal membrane. The analysis of protein-bound carbohydrates (total 270 microgram/mg phospholipid in desmosome-enriched subfractions) showed the presence of relatively high amounts of glucosamine, mannose, galactose, and sialic acids. These data as well as the lipid composition (e.g., high ratio of cholesterol to phospholipids, relatively high contents of sphingomyelin and gangliosides, and fatty acid pattern) indicate that the desmosomal membrane is complex in protein and lipid composition and has a typical plasma membrane character. The similarity of the desmosome-associated tonofilaments to prekeratin filaments and other forms of intermediate-sized filaments is discussed.

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