Trichocysts, the crystalline exocytotic organelles in Paramecium tetraurelia, are composed of small, acidic proteins existing primarily as disulphide-linked dimers. We have disaggregated trichocyst proteins with heat, simultaneously observing the changes in morphology and protein composition. The tip matrix was most heat-labile; its subunits progressively broke away from the distal end. During this process, breakdown of the cylindrical shaft began. Shafts first became flattened and torn lengthwise, yielding smaller, interconnected pieces still having the crystalline arrangement of their 5 nm thick fibres. Ultimately this pattern became disordered, and discrete fibrils of the same thickness disengaged from the meshwork. In freeze-etched preparations these fibrils were composed of thinner filaments in side-by-side association. Disaggregation of the tip sheath began from the distal end before shaft dissociation was complete. Trichocysts broke down to thin fibrils, but probably not to monomeric subunits. At least three proteins were preferentially released in the initial phase of dissociation. Disulphide-reducing agent present during heating increased the rate of dissociation without altering the sequence of morphological changes or the order of release of individual proteins. The rate and extent of heat-induced dissociation were strongly dependent on pH and cation concentration. The stabilizing effects of low pH and of cations were additive. A cooled suspension of fully dissociated trichocysts reassociated into sedimentable aggregates with discernible filamentous order, but without the crystalline structure of intact trichocysts. Reassociation was dependent upon time, temperature and protein concentration. All but one of the trichocyst proteins re-entered the sedimentable aggregate during reassociation. Reassociation was faster and more complete at pH 6 than at pH 8 and was stimulated by Ca2+, Mg2+ and La3+. Trichocyst proteins dissociated in the presence of dithiothreitol did not reassociate, even after removal of the reducing agent. Trichocysts from mutants defective to varying degrees in trichocyst formation were subjected to similar experimental protocols. Heat-dissociated trichocysts of the mutants scc6 and ptA1 reassociated at rates similar to those of wild-type; ftA3 showed slower reassociation, and tam38 showed little or no reassociation. Reassociation of wild-type trichocyst proteins was blocked by the addition of an equal amount of tam38 trichocyst proteins.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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