The membrane skeleton of normal erythrocytes is largely organized into a hexagonal lattice of junctional complexes (JC) crosslinked by spectrin tetramers, and occasional double tetramers and hexamers. To explore possible skeletal alterations in hereditary spherocytosis (HS), elliptocytosis (HE), and pyropoikilocytosis (HPP), we have studied the ultrastructure of the spread membrane skeletons from a subpopulation of HS patients with a partial spectrin deficiency ranging from 43% to 86% of normal levels, and in patients with HPP who, in addition to a mild spectrin deficiency, also carried a mutant spectrin that was dysfunctional, thus reducing the ability of spectrin dimers to assemble into tetramers. Membrane skeletons derived from Triton-treated erythrocyte ghosts were examined by negative staining electron microscopy. HS membrane skeletons contained structural elements, consisting of JC and spectrin filaments similar to the normal skeleton. However, less spectrin filaments interconnected the JC, and the decrease of spectrin filaments attached to JC appeared to correlate with the severity of spectrin deficiency. Only in severe HS associated with severe spectrin deficiency was the loss of spectrin sufficient enough to disrupt the overall skeletal architecture. In contrast, membrane skeletons prepared from red blood cells (RBCs) of subjects with HPP were strikingly different from HS RBCs with a comparable degree of spectrin deficiency. Although HPP RBCs were only mildly deficient in spectrin, their skeletal lattice was grossly disrupted, in contrast to only mild ultrastructural abnormalities of HS membrane skeletons with a nearly identical degree of spectrin deficiency. Skeletons from patients with common mild HE or asymptomatic carriers, carrying the mutant spectrin but having normal spectrin content, exhibited a moderate disruption of the skeletal lattice. We propose that the above differences in skeletal ultrastructure may underlie differences in the biomechanical properties and morphology of HS, HE, and HPP RBCs.

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