The electrophysiology of chemotactic factor interaction with cultured human macrophages was investigated with standard intracellular recording techniques. In initial studies, E. coli endotoxin-activated serum, added to cell cultures during intracellular recordings, caused membrane hyperpolarizations which were greater than 30 s in duration, 10-50 mV in amplitude, and associated with decreased membrane resistance. Control serum produced smaller hyperpolarizations lasting 10-20 s and 5-30 m V in amplitude. Endotoxin-activated human serum deficient in the third complement component (C3) did not produce hyperpolarizations unless the serum was reconstituted with C3 before activation. Fractionation of normal activated serum by molecular seive chromatography (G-75 Sephadex) indicated that only fractions that eluted with an estimated molecular weight of 12,500 produced membrane potential changes. The active material that was chemotactic for the macrophages was identified as the small molecular weight cleavage product of C5, C5a, by heat stability (30 min at 56 degrees C) and inactivation by goat antisera to human C5 but not C3. 17 percent of macrophages stimulated with C5a exhibited a biphasic response characterized by a small (2-6 mV), brief (1-10 s) depolarization associated with a decreased membrane resistance preceding the larger and prolonged hyperpolarizations. Magnesium-ethylene glycol bis[β-aminoethyl ether]N,N'-tetraacetic acid (Mg [2.5 mM]-EGTA [5.0 mM]) blocked the C5a-evoked potential changes, whereas colchine (10(- 6)M) and cytochalasin B (3.0 μg/ml did not. Hydrocortisone sodium succinate (0.5 mg/ml) decreased the percentage of cells responding to C5a. In related studies, synthetic N-formyl methionyl peptide (f-met-leu-phe), which had chemotactic activity for cultured macrophages, produced similar membrane potential changes. Repeated exposure of macrophages to C5a or f- met-leu-phe resulted in desensitization to the same stimulus. Simultaneous photomicroscope and intracellular recording studies during macrophage stimulation with chemotactic factor demonstrated that the membrane potential changes preceded membrane spreading, ruffling, and pseudopod formation. These observations demonstrate that ion fluxes associated with membrane potential changes are early events in macrophage activation by chemotactic factors

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