We analyzed the pathway of nuclear envelope assembly in Xenopus egg extracts using field emission in-lens scanning electron microscopy. The binding, fusion, and flattening of vesicles onto the chromatin surface were visualized in detail. The first nuclear pore complexes assembled in flattened patches of nuclear envelope, before the chromatin was fully enclosed by membranes. Confirming previous transmission electron microscope observations, two morphologically distinct types of vesicles contributed to the nuclear membranes: ribosome-carrying (‘rough’) vesicles, many of which bound directly to chromatin, and ‘smooth’ vesicles, which appeared to associate primarily with other nuclear vesicles or membrane patches. The presence of ribosomes, an outer nuclear membrane marker, on many chromatin-binding vesicles suggested that chromatin-attachment proteins integral to the inner membrane were present on vesicles that also carried markers of the outer membrane and endoplasmic reticulum. Chromatin-associated vesicles also carried pore membrane proteins, since pore complexes formed when these vesicles were incubated with cytosol. A change in nuclear envelope morphology termed ‘envelope smoothing’ occurred 5–15 minutes after enclosure. Nuclear envelopes that were assembled in extracts depleted of wheat-germ-agglutinin-binding nucleoporins, and therefore unable to form functional pore complexes, remained wrinkled, suggesting that ‘smoothing’ required active nuclear transport. Lamins accumulated with time when nuclei were enclosed and had functional pore complexes, whereas lamins were not detected on nuclei that lacked functional pore complexes. Very low levels of lamins were detected on nuclear intermediates whose surfaces were substantially covered with patches of pore-complex-containing envelope, suggesting that pore complexes might be functional before enclosure.

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