Exposure of meningococci to the bactericidal system of normal rat serum initiates a series of ultrastructural changes that accompany death of the organism. These morphological alterations consist of complement-dependent holes in the cell wall outer membrane, edema of the periplasmic space and cytoplasm, and accumulation of fibrillar material in and on the cell wall. Dissolution of the dense line and rupture of the cytoplasmic membrane also occur in meningococci exposed to normal rate serum. These latter two changes, however, are not seen in meningococci that are killed by bentonite-absorbed (lysozyme-deficient) serum, nor are they invariably present when other serum-susceptible organisms (N. catarrhalis and Herellea sp.) are treated with normal rat serum.
The pattern of development of edema in serum-treated meningococci suggests that the cell wall outer membrane, mucopeptide layer, and cytoplasmic membrane act synergistically to maintain osmotic equilibrium of the bacterium. Death of the bacterium seems related to alteration of permeability following injury to the outer membrane.
Holes are demonstrable, by negative straining, in the outer membrane of the meningococcal cell wall after exposure to the bactericidal effects of rat serum. The lesions are 110 A average greatest diameter and depend on the presence of antibody and complement for their formation. In addition, 82 A diameter holes are present in the walls of normal, untreated meningococci. The relation of complement-dependent holes to the smaller, naturally occurring holes is not known.