In order to examine the widely held hypothesis that the reticulum of proteins which covers the cytoplamsic surface of the human erythrocyte membrane controls cell stability and shape, we have assessed some of its properties. The reticulum, freed of the bilayer by extraction with Triton X-100, was found to be mechanically stable at physiological ionic strength but physically unstable at low ionic strength. The reticulum broke down after a characteristic lag period which decreased 500-fold between 0 degrees and 37 degrees C. The release of polypeptide band 4.1 from the reticulum preceded that of spectrin and actin, suggesting that band 4.1 might stabilize the ensemble but is not essential to its integrity.
The time-course of breakdown was similar for ghosts, the reticulum inside of ghosts, and the isolated reticulum. However, at very low ionic strength, the reticulum was less stable within the ghost than when free; at higher ionic strength, the reverse was true. Over a wide range of conditions the membrane broke down to vesicles just as the reticulum disintegrated, presumably because the bilayer was mechanically stabilized by this network.
The volume of both ghosts and naked reticula varied inversely and reversibly with ionic strength. The volume of the naked reticulum varied far more widely than the ghost, suggesting that its deformation was normally limited by the less extensible bilayer. The contour of the isolated reticulum was discoid and often dimpled or indented, as visualized in the fluorescence microscope after labeling of the ghosts with fluoroscein isothiocyanate. Reticula derived from ghosts which had lost the ability to crenate in isotonic saline were shriveled, even though the bilayer was smooth and expanded. Conversly, ghosts crenated by dinitrophenol yielded smooth, expanded reticula. We conclude that the reticulum is a durable, flexible, and elastic network which assumes and stabilizes the contour of the membrane but is not responsible for its crenation.