Binding of the plant lectin wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) to erythrocyte membranes causes membrane rigidification. One of our objectives has been to directly measure the effects of WGA binding on membrane rigidity and to relate rigidification to the kinetics and levels of WGA binding. Our other objective has been to measure the strength of adhesion and mechanics of cell separation for erythrocytes bound together by WGA. The erythrocyte membrane rigidity was measured on single cells by micropipette aspiration. The slope of the suction pressure-length data for entry into the pipette provided the measure of the membrane extensional modulus. Data were collected for cells equilibrated with WGA solutions in the range of concentrations of 0.01-10 micrograms/ml. Erythrocyte-erythrocyte adherence properties were studied by micropipette separation of two-cell aggregates. First, a "test" cell was selected from a WGA solution by aspiration into a small micropipette, then transferred to a separate chamber that contained erythrocytes in WGA-free buffer. Here, a second cell was aspirated with another pipette and maneuvered into close proximity of the test cell surface, and adhesive contact was produced. The flaccid cell was separated from the test cell surface in steps at which the force of attachment was derived from the pipette suction pressure and cell geometry. In addition, we measured the time-dependent binding and release of fluorescently labeled WGA to single erythrocytes with a laser microfluorometry system. The results showed that the stiffening of the erythrocyte membrane and binding of fluorescently labeled WGA to the membrane surface followed the same concentration and time dependencies. The threshold concentration for membrane stiffening was at approximately 0.1 microgram/ml where the time course to reach equilibrium was close to 1 h. The maximal stiffening (almost 30-fold over the normal membrane elastic modulus) occurred in concentrations greater than 2 micrograms/ml where the time to reach equilibrium took less than 1 min. The WGA binding also altered the normal elastic membrane behavior into an inelastic, plastic-like response which indicated that mechanical extension of the membrane caused an increase in cross-linking within the surface plane. Similar to the stiffening effect, we observed that the membrane adhesivity of cells equilibrated with WGA solutions greatly increased with concentration greater than 0.1 microgram/ml.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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