Polycationic ferritin, a multivalent ligand, was used as a visual probe to determine the distribution and density of anionic sites on the surfaces of rat liver mitochondrial membranes. Both the distribution of bound polycationic ferritin and the topography of the outer surface of the inner mitochondrial membrane were studied in depth by utilizing thin sections and critical-point dried, whole mount preparations for transmission electron microscopy and by scanning electron microscopy. Based on its relative affinity for polycationic ferritin, the surface of the inner membrane contains discrete regions of high density and low density anionic sites. Whereas the surface of the cristal membrane contains a low density of anionic sites, the surface of the inner boundary membrane contains patches of high density anionic sites. The high density anionic sites on the inner boundary membrane were found to persist as stable patches and did not dissociate or randomize freely when the membrane was converted osmotically to a spherical configuration. The observations suggest that the inner mitochondrial membrane is composed of two major regions of anionic macromolecular distinction. It is well-known that an intermembrane space exists between the two membranes of the intact mitochondrion; however, a number of contact sites occur between the two membranes. We determined that the outer membrane, partially disrupted by treatment with digitonin, remains attached to the inner membrane at these contact sites as inverted vesicles. Such attached vesicles show that the inner surface of the outer membrane contains anionic sites, but of decreased density, surrounding the contact sites. Thus, the intermembrane space in the intact mitochondrion may be maintained by electronegative surfaces of the two mitochondrial membranes. The distribution of anionic sites on the outer surface of the outer membrane is random. The nature and function of fixed anionic surface charges and membrane contact sites are discussed with regard to recent reports relating to calcium transport, protein assembly into mitochondrial membranes, and membrane fluidity.

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