The effects of the 27 X 10(3) Mr insecticidal delta-endotoxin from Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis have been studied using, as a model system, isolated insect Malpighian tubules. At all concentrations of the toxin higher than 1 microgram ml-1 (4 X 10(−8) moll-1) applied to the outer surface of the tubules, fluid secretion failed within about 30 min. Except at very high concentrations, where failure always takes at least 30 s, there was an inverse relationship between the concentration of toxin and the time of failure of toxin-treated tubules. During exposure to toxin, the tubules were initially unaffected for a relatively long period and then rapid failure occurred. If the tubules were removed into toxin-free saline just before failure would have occurred, fluid secretion remained normal for at least 2 h, but on return to the origin toxin-containing saline failure was almost immediate. The toxin was found not to bind to the basement membrane. Ultrastructural changes became evident as tubule failure occurred. These initially involved modifications to the basal side of the cells, but later also to the luminal microvilli. Intercellular junctions became disassociated and cytoplasmic vacuolization occurred. The population of intramembranous particles in the basal membranes became reduced with time. Our findings suggest the following hypothesis for the initial stages in the interaction of the toxin with the tubules. Toxin molecules attach to the accessible cell membranes progressively and irreversibly. They do not readily associate by diffusing laterally in the membrane, so that toxic effects develop only when sufficiently large numbers of them attach close together. The molecules may then associate in some way as a complex, perhaps forming a pore in the membrane. Relatively few such pores lead rapidly to cell failure and death.

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