The mechanism by which polyethylene glycol (PEG) mediates cell fusion has been studied by examining the movements of membrane lipids and proteins, as well as cytoplasmic markers, from erythrocytes to monolayers of cultured cells to which they have been fused. Fluorescence and freeze-fracture electron microscopy and fluorescence recovery after photobleaching have yielded the following results: (a) In the presence of both fusogenic and nonfusogenic PEG membranes are brought together at closely apposed contact regions. (b) Fluorescent lipid probes quickly spread from the membranes of erythrocytes to cultured cells in the presence of both fusogenic and nonfusogenic PEG. (c) Proteins of the erythrocyte membranes were never observed to diffuse into the cultured cell membrane. (d) Water-soluble proteins did not diffuse from the erythrocyte interior into the target cell cytoplasm until the PEG was removed. These data suggest that the coordinate action of two distinct components is necessary for fusion as mediated by PEG. Presumably, the polymer itself promotes close apposition of the adjacent cell membranes but the fusion stimulus is provided by the additives contained in commercial PEG.

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