To study the size and structure of the Na,K-pump molecule, the ultrastructure of phospholipid vesicles was examined after incorporation of purified Na,K-ATPase which catalyzes active coupled transport of Na+ and K+ in a ratio close to 3Na/2K. The vesicles were analyzed by thin sectioning and freeze-fracture electron microscopy after reconstitution with different ratios of Na,K-ATPase protein to lipid, and the ultrastructural observations were correlated to the cation transport capacity. The purified Na,K-ATPase reconstituted with phospholipids to form a very uniform population of vesicles. Thin sections of preparations fixed with glutaraldehyde and osmium tetroxide showed vesicles limited by a single membrane which in samples stained with tannic acid appeared triple-layered with a thickness of 70 A. Also, freeze-fracture electron microscopy demonstrated uniform vesicles with diameters in the range of 700-1,100 A and an average value close to 900 A. The vesicle diameter was independent of the amount of protein used for reconstitution. Intramembrane particles appeared only in the vesicle membrane after introduction of Na,K-ATPase and the frequency of intramembrane particles was proportional to the amount of Na,K-ATPase protein used in the reconstitution. The particles were evenly distributed on the inner and the outer leaflet of the vesicle membrane. The diameter of the particles was 90 A and similar to our previous values for the diameter of intramembrane particles in the purified Na,K-ATPase. The capacity for active cation transport in the reconstituted vesicles was proportional to the frequency of intramembrane particles over a range of 0.2-16 particles per vesicle. The data therefore show that active coupled Na,K transport can be carried out by units of Na,K-ATPase which appear as single intramembrane particles with diameters close fo 90 A in the freeze-fracture micrographs.

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