Atomic force microscopy of the erythrocyte membrane skeleton

A. H. Swihart, J. M. Mikrut, J. B. Ketterson, R. C. Macdonald

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81 Scopus citations


The atomic force microscope was used to examine the cytoplasmic surface of untreated as well as fixed human erythrocyte membranes that had been continuously maintained under aqueous solutions. To assess the effects of drying, some membranes were examined in air. Erythrocytes attached to mica or glass were sheared open with a stream of isotonic buffer, which allowed access to the cytoplasmic membrane face without exposing cells to non-physiological ionic strength solutions. Under these conditions of examination, the unfixed cytoplasmic membrane face revealed an irregular meshwork that appeared to be a mixture largely of triangular and rectilinear openings with mesh sizes that varied from 35 to 100 nm, although few were at the upper limit. Fixed ghosts were similar, but slightly more contracted. These features represent the membrane skeleton, as when the ghosts were treated to extract spectrin and actin, these meshworks were largely removed. Direct measurements of the thickness of the membrane skeleton and of the lateral dimensions of features in the images suggested that, especially when air dried, spectrin can cluster into large, quite regularly distributed aggregates. Aggregation of cytoskeletal components was also favoured when the cells were attached to a polylysine-treated substrate. In contrast, the membrane skeletons of cells attached to substrates rendered positively charged by chemical derivatization with a cationic silane were much more resistant to aggregation. As steps were taken to reduce the possibility of change of the skeleton after opening the cells, the aggregates and voids were eliminated, and the observed structures became shorter and thinner. Ghosts treated with Triton X-100 solutions to remove the bilayer revealed a meshwork having aggregated components resembling those seen in air. These findings support the proposition that the end-to-end distance of spectrin tetramers in the cell in the equilibrium state is much shorter than the contour length of the molecule and that substantial rearrangements of the spectrin-actin network occur when it is expanded by low ionic strength extraction from the cell. This study demonstrates the applicability of AFM for imaging the erythrocyte membrane skeleton at a resolution that appears adequate to identify major components of the membrane skeleton under near-physiological conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)212-225
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Microscopy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • AFM
  • Band 3
  • Cytoskeleton
  • Erythrocyte
  • Membrane skeleton
  • Spectrin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology


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