The changes in membrane structure of rabbit polymorphonuclear (PMN) leukocytes during bacterial phagocytosis was investigated with scanning electron microscope (SEM), thin-section, and freeze-fracture techniques. SEM observations of bacterial attachment sites showed the involvement of limited areas of PMN membrane surface (0.01-0.25μm(2)). Frequently, these areas of attachment were located on membrane extensions. The membrane extensions were present before, during, and after the engulfment of bacteria, but were diminished in size after bacterial engulfment. In general, the results obtained with SEM and thin-section techniques aided in the interpretation of the three-dimensional freeze-fracture replicas. Freeze-fracture results revealed the PMN leukocytes had two fracture faces as determined by the relative density of intramembranous particles (IMP). Membranous extensions of the plasma membrane, lysosomes, and phagocytic vacuoles contained IMP's with a distribution and density similar to those of the plasma membrane.
During phagocytosis, IMPs within the plasma membrane did not undergo a massive aggregation. In fact, structural changes within the membranes were infrequent and localized to regions such as the attachment sites of bacteria, the fusion sites on the plasma membrane, and small scale changes in the phagocytic vacuole membrane during membrane fusion. During the formation of the phagocytic vacuole, the IMPs of the plasma membrane appeared to move in with the lipid bilayer while maintaining a distribution and density of IMPs similar to those of the plasma membranes. Occasionally, IMPs were aligned to linear arrays within phagocytic vacuole membranes. This alignment might be due to an interaction with linearly arranged motile structures on the side of the phagocytic vacuole membranes. IMP-free regions were observed after fusion of lysosomes with the phagocytic vacuoles or plasma membrane. These IMP-free areas probably represent sites where membrane fusion occurred between lysosomal membrane and phagocytic vacuole membrane or plasma membrane. Highly symmetrical patterns of IMPs were not observed during lysosomal membrane fusion.