Cultured rat myotubes develop high concentrations of acetylcholine receptors (AChR) in specialized areas of attachment to their substrate. We examined the ultrastructure of identified AChR clusters by quick-freeze, deep-etch, rotary replication or by thin sectioning of whole myotubes fixed in the presence of saponin and tannic acid to preserve the cytoskeleton. Our findings show that AChR clusters are composed of at least three distinct domains, differing in their cytoskeletal, intramembrane, and external components. At contact domains, the myotube's ventral membrane lacked AChR and lay within 10-15 nm of the substrate; electron-dense strands connected the two. The overlying cytoplasm contained bundles of parallel microfilaments passing above and through an irregular network of globular material, resembling the relationship of microfilament bundles to focal contacts already described in fibroblasts. Coated-membrane domains lay between the microfilament bundles and were overlain by cytoplasmic plaques of a regular network of polygons having associated coated pits. These plaques closely resembled the network of polymerized clathrin described in fibroblasts and macrophages. Coated membrane also lacked AChR and adhered to the substrate by electron-dense strands, but did not anchor microfilament bundles. The cytoplasm overlying AChR domains contained a complex network composed of at least two layers. The layer closest to the membrane consisted of protrusions from the cytoplasmic surface, some connected by fine filaments less than 5 nm in diameter. An overlying layer contained larger diameter filaments, some forming an anastomotic network reminiscent of the cortical cytoskeleton of erythrocytes. Longer filaments inserting into this network appeared identical to members of nearby microfilament bundles. The morphology of AChR domains supports the idea that AChR are immobilized by a network containing actin and spectrin.

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