Widespread experience indicates that application of suboptimal concentrations of stimulating ligands (secretagogues) to secretory cells elicits submaximal extents of secretion. Similarly, for permeabilized secretory cells, the extent of secretion is related to the concentration of applied intracellular effectors. We investigated the relationship between the extent of secretion from mast cells (assessed as the release of hexosaminidase) and the degranulation (exocytosis) responses of individual cells. For permeabilized mast cells stimulated by the effector combination Ca2+ plus GTP-gamma-S and for intact cells stimulated by the Ca2+ ionophore ionomycin, we found that exocytosis has the characteristics of an all-or-none process at the level of the individual cells. With a suboptimal stimulus, the population comprised only totally degranulated cells and fully replete cells. In contrast, a suboptimal concentration of compound 48/80 applied to intact cells induced a partial degree of degranulation. This was determined by observing the morphological changes accompanying degranulation by light and electron microscopy and also as a reduction in the intensity of light scattered at 90 degrees, indicative of a change in the cell-refractive index. These results may be explained by the existence of a threshold sensitivity to the combined effectors that is set at the level of individual cells and not at the granule level. We used flow cytometry to establish the relationship between the extent of degranulation in individual rat peritoneal mast cells and the extent of secretion in the population (measured as the percentage release of total hexosaminidase). For comparison, secretion was also elicited by applying the Ca2+ ionophore ionomycin or compound 48/80 to intact cells. For permeabilized cells and also for intact cells stimulated with the ionophore, levels of stimulation that generate partial secretion gave rise to bimodal frequency distributions of 90 degrees light scatter. In contrast, a partial stimulus to secretion by compound 48/80 resulted in a single population of partially degranulated cells, the degree of degranulation varying across the cell population. The difference between the all-or-none responses of the permeabilized or ionophore-treated cells and the graded responses of cells activated by compound 48/80 is likely to stem from differences in the effective calcium stimulus. Whereas cell stimulated with receptor-directed agonists can undergo transient and localized Ca2+ changes, a homogeneous and persistent stimulus is sensed at every potential exocytotic site in the permeabilized cells.

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