Dark-field microscopy with a high-powered light source revealed that the outer doublet microtubules (DMTs) from sea urchin (Pseudocentrotus depressus and Hemicentrotus pulcherrimus) sperm flagella assume helically coiled configurations (Miki-Noumura, T., and R. Kamiya. 1976. Exp. Cell Res. 97: 451.). We report here that the DMTs change shape when the pH or Ca-ion concentration is changed. The DMTs assumed a left-handed helical shape with a diameter of 3.7 +/- 0.5 micron and a pitch of 2.8 +/- 0.7 micron at pH 7.4 in the presence of 0.1 mM CaCl2, 1 mM MgSO4, and 10 mM Tris-HCl. When the pH was raised to 8.3, the helical diameter and pitch decreased to 2.1 +/- 0.1 micron and 1.3 +/- 0.3 micron, respectively. This transformation was a rapid and reversible process and was completed within 1 min. Between pH 7.2 and 8.3, the DMTs assumed intermediate shapes. When the Ca-ion concentration was depleted with EGTA, the helical structure became significantly larger in both pitch and diameter. For instance, the diameter was 3.8 +/- 0.4 micron at pH 8.3 in the presence of 1 mM EGTA and 2 mM MgSO4. Using a Ca-buffer system, we obtained results which suggested that this Ca-induced transformation took place at a Ca concentration of approximately 10(-7) M. These results were highly reproducible. The conformational changes in the DMT may play some role in the bending wave form of flagellar movement.

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