Our previous results indicated that the plasma membrane of cultured normal rat kidney fibroblastic cell is compartmentalized for diffusion of receptor molecules, and that long-range diffusion is the result of successive intercompartmental jumps (Sako, Y. and Kusumi, A. 1994. J. Cell Biol. 125:1251-1264). In the present study, we characterized the properties of intercompartmental boundaries by tagging transferrin receptor (TR) with either 210-nm-phi latex or 40-nm-phi colloidal gold particles, and by dragging the particle-TR complexes laterally along the plasma membrane using laser tweezers. Approximately 90% of the TR-particle complexes showed confined-type diffusion with a microscopic diffusion coefficient (Dmicro) of approximately 10(-9) cm2/s and could be dragged past the intercompartmental boundaries in their path by laser tweezers at a trapping force of 0.25 pN for gold-tagged TR and 0.8 pN for latex-tagged TR. At lower dragging forces between 0.05 and 0.1 pN, particle-TR complexes tended to escape from the laser trap at the boundaries, and such escape occurred in both the forward and backward directions of dragging. The average distance dragged was half of the confined distance of TR, which further indicates that particle-TR complexes escape at the compartment boundaries. Since variation in the particle size (40 and 210 nm, the particles are on the extracellular surface of the plasma membrane) hardly affects the diffusion rate and behavior of the particle-TR complexes at the compartment boundaries, and since treatment with cytochalasin D or vinblastin affects the movements of TR (Sako and Kusumi as cited above), argument has been advanced that the boundaries are present in the cytoplasmic domain. Rebound of the particle-TR complexes when they escape from the laser tweezers at the compartment boundaries suggests that the boundaries are elastic structures. These results are consistent with the proposal that the compartment boundaries consist of membrane skeleton or a membrane-associated part of the cytoskeleton (membrane skeleton fence model). Approximately 10% of TR exhibited slower diffusion (Dmicro approximately 10(-10)-10(-11) cm2/s) and binding to elastic structures.

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