The avidin-biotin complex was used for the selective ultrastructural labeling of terminal cell surface galactosyl residues. Rabbit bone marrow cells were treated with the enzyme galactose oxidase in the presence of biotin hydrazide. Subsequent treatment with ferritin-avidin conjugates enabled the electron microscopic visualization of terminal membrane-based galactose and/or N-acetylgalactosamine on these cells. All stages of erythroid development were characterized by high levels of exposed cell surface galactose, whereas all leukoid cells in the same preparations were virtually unlabeled by the above method. Modulations in the distribution of these surface determinants during differentiation and maturation of rabbit erythroid cells were found to concur in inverse fashion with respect to that of terminal sialic acids. Neuraminidase treatment, before the above labeling procedure, resulted in the exposure of additional galactosyl residues on the surface of all bone marrow cell types. The results indicate that a galactose-bearing glycoconjugate(s) may comprise an erythroid-specific membrane constituent of rabbit bone marrow cells. The high density of galactose on the surface of even the earliest erythroid precursors may eventually enable the identification and isolation of a stem cell, which already contains the erythroid-specific galactoconjugate(s). The results suggest that variations in the spectrum of cell surface carbohydrates may serve as recognition signals in the complex set of intercellular interactions which occur during the development and maturation of the erythrocyte. The occurrence of similar but species-specific variations in the complement of surface heterosaccharides during erythroid development of humans and other mammals supports this contention.

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