We have used thin section and freeze-fracture electron microscopy to study membrane changes occurring during exocytosis in rat peritoneal mast cells. By labeling degranulating mast cells with ferritin-conjugated lectins and anti-immunoglobulin antibodies, we demonstrate that these ligands do not bind to areas of plasma membrane or granule membrane which have fused with, or are interacting with, granule membrane. Moreover, intramembrane particles are also largely absent from both protoplasmic and external fracture faces of plasma and granule membranes in regions where these membranes appear to be interacting. Both the externally applied ligands and intramembrane particles are sometimes concentrated at the edges of fusion sites. The results indicate that membrane proteins are displaced laterally into adjacent membrane regions before the fusion process and that fusion occurs between protein-depleted lipid bilayers. The finding of protein-depleted blebs in regions of plasma and granule membrane interaction raises the interesting possibility that blebbing may be a process for exposing the granule contents to the extracellular space and for the elimination of excess lipid while conserving membrane proteins.

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