The density and size of human erythrocytes has been roughly correlated with cell age, with the denser and smaller cells being older. Observations of this type have led to a hypothesis that the membranes of circulating erythrocytes are dynamic with respect to composition and that material is lost from the membrane during cell maturation and circulation. In this study, flow cytofluorimetry was used to investigate the distribution of the human erythrocyte anion transport protein (protein 3) in heterogeneous samples of circulating red cells. We verified that protein 3 can be specifically and quantitatively labeled in intact human erythrocytes with eosin-5-maleimide, a luminescent probe. Individual cells were accordingly analyzed for size by forward light scattering and for protein 3 content by quantitation of eosin fluorescence. Initial results indicated that the smallest erythrocytes had a protein 3 content equal to that of the largest circulating erythrocytes. This result was independently verified by light scatter-activated cell sorting; direct measurement of cell diameters by microscopy verified that the cell sizes of erythrocytes showing the 10% greatest and 10% smallest light-scattering signal were indeed distinct. Independent analysis of the size-sorted erythrocytes for protein 3 content was accomplished by gel electrophoresis of stroma from 150,000 large and small erythrocytes. Quantitative scanning densitometry of silver-stained gels of prepared stroma showed that protein 3 content of each set of fractionated cells was equal and did not vary as a function of cell size. Taken in combination with the reported correlation between increasing red blood cell age and decreasing cell size, these results indicate that any loss of membranous material during the cell aging process is not random.

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