Specialized areas within broad, close, cell-substratum contacts seen with reflection interference contrast microscopy in cultures of Xenopus embryonic muscle cells were studied. These areas usually contained a distinct pattern of light and dark spots suggesting that the closeness of apposition between the membrane and the substratum was irregular. They coincided with areas containing acetylcholine receptor clusters identified by fluorescence labeled alpha-bungarotoxin. Freeze-fracture of the cells confirmed these observations. The membrane in these areas was highly convoluted and contained aggregates of large P-face intramembrane particles (probably representing acetylcholine receptors). If cells were fixed and then treated with the sterol-specific antibiotic filipin before fracturing, the pattern of filipin-sterol complex distribution closely followed the pattern of cell-substratum contact. Filipin-sterol complexes were in low density in the regions where the membrane contained clustered intramembrane particles. These membrane regions were away from the substratum (bright white areas in reflection interference contrast; depressions of the P-face in freeze-fracture). Filipin-sterol complexes were also in reduced density where the membrane was very close to the substratum (dark areas in reflection interference contrast; bulges of the P-face in freeze-fracture). These areas were not associated with clustered acetylcholine receptors (aggregated particles). This result suggests that filipin treatment causes little or no artefact in either acetylcholine receptor distribution or membrane topography of fixed cells and that the distribution of filipin-sterol complexes may closely parallel the microheterogeneity of membranes that exist in living cells.

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