It has recently been reported that 8S clathrin trimers or "triskelions" form larger 27S oligomers upon dialysis into low ionic strength buffers (Prasad, K., R. E. Lippoldt, H. Edelhoch, and M. S. Lewis, 1986, Biochemistry, 25:5214-5219). Here, deep-etch electron microscopy of the 27S species reveals that they are closed tetrahedra composed of four clathrin triskelions. This was determined by two approaches. First, standard quick-freezing and freeze-etching of unfixed 27S species suspended in 2 mM 2-(N-morpholino)ethane sulfonic acid (MES) buffer, pH 5.9, yielded unambiguous images of tetrahedra that measured 33 nm on each edge. Second, the technique of freeze-drying molecules on mica (Heuser, J. E., 1983, J. Mol. Biol., 169:155-195) was modified to overcome the low affinity of mica in 2 mM MES, by pretreating the mica with polylysine. Thereafter, 27S species adsorbed avidly to it and collapsed into characteristic configurations containing four globular domains, each linked to the others by three approximately 33-nm struts. The globular domains look like vertices of deep-etched clathrin triskelions and the links, numbering 12 in all, look like four sets of triskelion legs. New light scattering and equilibrium centrifugation data confirm that 27S polymer is four times as massive as one clathrin triskelion. We conclude that in conditions that do not favor the formation of standard clathrin cages, low affinity interactions lead to closed, symmetrical assemblies of four triskelions, each of which assumes a unique puckered, straight-legged configuration to create the edges of a tetrahedron. Tetrahedra are similar in construction to the cubic octomers of clathrin recently found in ammonium sulfate solutions (Sorger, P. K., R. A. Crowther, J. T. Finch, and B. M. F. Pearse, 1986, J. Cell Biol., 103:1213-1219) but are still smaller, involving only half as many clathrin triskelions.

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