To investigate the physiologic role of gelsolin in cells, we have studied the location and mobility of gelsolin in a mouse fibroblast cell line (C3H). Gelsolin was localized by immunofluorescence of fixed and permeabilized cells and by fluorescent analog cytochemistry of living cells and cells that were fixed and/or permeabilized. Overall, the images show that in living cells gelsolin has a diffuse cytoplasmic distribution, but in fixed cells a minor fraction is associated with regions of the cell that are rich in actin filaments. The latter fraction is more prominent after permeabilization of the fixed cells because some diffuse gelsolin is not fixed and is therefore lost during permeabilization, confirmed by immunoblots. To determine quantitatively whether gelsolin is bound to actin filaments in living cells, we measured the mobility of microinjected fluorescent gelsolin by fluorescence photobleaching recovery. Gelsolin is fully mobile with a diffusion coefficient similar to that of control proteins. As a positive control, fluorescent phalloidin, which binds actin filaments, is totally immobile. These results are supported by immunoblots on cells permeabilized with detergent. All the endogenous gelsolin is extracted, and the half-time for the extraction is approximately 5 s, which is about the rate predicted for diffusion. Therefore, gelsolin is not tightly bound to actin filaments in cells. The most likely interpretation of the difference between living and fixed cells is that fixation traps a fraction of gelsolin that is associated with actin filaments in short-lived complexes.

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