We have examined the redistribution of acetylcholine receptor (AChR) intramembrane particles (IMPs) when AChR clusters of cultured rat myotubes are experimentally disrupted and allowed to reform. In control myotubes, the AChR IMPs are evenly distributed within the AChR domains of cluster membrane. Shortly after addition of azide to disrupt clusters, IMPs become unevenly scattered, with some microaggregation. After longer treatment, IMPs are depleted from AChR domains with no further change in IMP distribution. Contact domains of clusters are relatively poor in IMPs both before and after cluster dispersal. Upon visualization with fluorescent alpha-bungarotoxin, some AChR in azide-treated samples appear as small, bright spots. These spots do not correspond to microaggregates seen in freeze-fracture replicas, and probably represent receptors that have been internalized. The internalization rate is insufficient to account completely for the loss of IMPs from clusters, however. During reformation of AChR clusters upon removal of azide, IMP concentration in receptor domains increases. At early stages of reformation, IMPs appear in small groups containing compact microaggregates. At later times, AChR domains enlarge and IMPs within them assume the evenly spaced distribution characteristic of control clusters. These observations suggest that the disruption of clusters is accompanied by mobilization of AChR from a fixed array, allowing AChR IMPs to diffuse away from the clusters, to form microaggregates, and to become internalized. Cluster reformation appears to be the reverse of this process. Our results are thus consistent with a two-step model for AChR clustering, in which the concentration of IMPs into a small membrane region precedes their rearrangement into evenly spaced sites.

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