A narrow zone of plasma membrane between the head and body of a protozoan from termites undergoes continual in-plane shear because the head rotates continuously in the same direction relative to the cell body (Tamm, S.L., and S. Tamm, 1974, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 71:4589-4593). Using filipin and digitonin as cytochemical probes for cholesterol and related 3-beta-hydroxysterols, we found a high level of sterol-specific complexes, visible as membrane lesions in thin sections, in both shearing and nonshearing regions of the membrane, indicating no difference in sterol content. This confirmed previous observations that any region of the fluid membrane can undergo shear, but that this occurs only at certain locations due to cell geometry and proximity to rotating cytoskeletal structures. Filipin and digitonin did not disrupt the plasma membrane at the junctions with ectosymbiotic rod and fusiform bacteria (i.e., membrane pockets and ridges). However, pepsin degradation of dense material coating the junctional membranes resulted in a positive response of these regions to filipin. Fluorescence microscopy revealed a bright halo around each rod bacterium, due to filipin-sterol binding in the sides of the membrane pockets, but no fluorescence at the bottom of the pockets; the same fluorescence pattern was found in pepsin-treated cells despite the presence of sterols throughout the pocket membrane, as shown by electron microscopy. These findings indicate that (a) regional constraints may restrict the ability of filipin to interact with sterols or form visible membrane lesions, and (b) a negative response to filipin, assayed by either electron or fluorescence microscopy, is not sufficient to demonstrate low membrane sterol concentration, particularly in membrane domains characterized by closely associated proteins.

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