This study was conducted to gain insight into the process of assembly of the membrane attack complex (MAC) of complement through structural analysis. Four intermediate complexes and the MAC were examined by electron microscopy and by sucrose density-gradient ultracentrifugation. The C5b-6 complex has a sedimentation rate of 11S, an elongated, slightly curved shape and dimensions of 160 x 60 x 60 A. At protein concentrattions greater than 1 mg/ml, and physiologic ionic strength and pH, the complex forms paracrystals that have the appearance of parallel strands. Equimolar quantities of C5b-6 and C7 mixed in the absence of lipids or detergents give rise to C5b-7 protein micelles which are soluble in aqueous media and have a sedimentation rate of 36S, suggesting a tetrameric composition. Ultrastructurally, C5b-7 protein micelles consist of four half-rings, each measuring 200 x 50 A, which are connected to one another by short stalks extending from the convex side of the half-rings. C5b-7 bound to dioleoyl lecithin (DOL) vesicles has a similar ultrastructural appearance. After extraction with deoxycholate (DOC), C5b-7 has a sedimentation velocity of 36S which further suggests the occurrence of C5b-7 in the form of tetrameric protein micelles. Attachment of C8 to vesicle-bound C5b-7 results in dissociation of the protein micelles. An individual C5b-8 complex appears as a half-ring attached to the DOL-vesicle via a 100-A-long and 30-A-wide stalk. After extraction from the DOL-vesicles with DOC, C5b-8 has a sedimentation velocity of approximately 18S. Binding of C9 to DOL-vesicle bound C5b-8 induces the formation of the typical ultrastructural complement lesions. C5b-9 extracted from the vesicles with DOC has a sedimentation rate of 33S, which is characteristic of the C5b-9 dimer. It is concluded that dimerization is a function of C9. C5b-9 monomers are visualized when a single C5b-9 complex or an odd number of complexes were bound per DOL-vesicle. The C5b-9 monomer has an ultrastructural appearance that is theoretically expected of a half-dimer: a 200- x 50-A half-ring which is attached to the DOL-vesicle by a 100- x 80-A appendage. Extracted with DOC, the C5b-9 monomer has a sedimentation rate of 23S. At a higher multiplicity of MAC per DOL-vesicle, large structural defects in the lipid bilayer are seen which are attributed to direct physical destruction of membranes by the known lipid-binding capacity of the MAC. It is proposed that protein micelle formation at the C5b-7 stage of MAC assembly and dissociation of these micelles upon binding of C8 are events that facilitate dimerization of C5b-9 and thus MAC formation.

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