We examine the effect of cooling upon the freeze-etch ultrastructure of nuclear membranes, as well as upon nucleocytoplasmic RNA transport in the unicellular eukaryote Tetrahymena pyriformis. Chilling produces smooth, particle-free areas on both faces of the two freeze-fractured macronuclear membranes. Upon return to optimum growth temperature the membrane-associated particles revert to their normal uniform distribution and the smooth areas disappear. Chilling lowers the incorporation of [14C]uridine into whole cells and their cytoplasmic RNA. Cooling from the optimum growth temperature of 28° to 18°C (or above) decreases [14C]uridine incorporation into cells more than into their cytoplasmic RNA; chilling to below 18°C but above 10°C causes the reverse.
[14C]Uridine incorporation into whole cells and their cytoplasmic RNA reflects overall RNA synthesis and nucleocytoplasmic RNA transport, respectively. RNA transport decreases strongly between 20° and 16°C, which is also the temperature range where morphologically detectable nuclear membrane transitions occur. This suggests that the nuclear envelope limits the rate of nucleocytoplasmic RNA transport at low temperatures. We hypothesize that a thermotropic lipid phase transition switches nuclear pore complexes from an "open" to a "closed" state with respect to nucleocytoplasmic RNA transport.