Streptolysin O (SLO) is a membrane-damaging toxin produced by most strains of group A beta-hemolytic streptococci. We performed ultrastructural analysis of SLO-derived lesions on erythrocyte membranes by examining electron micrographs of negatively stained preparations. SLO formed numerous arc- and ring-shaped structures with or without holes on membranes. Rings formed on intact cell membranes had an inner diameter of ca. 24 nm and had distinct borders of ca. 4.9 nm in width, but the diameter of rings varied from 24 to 30 nm on membranes of erythrocyte ghosts. Image analysis of electron micrographs demonstrated that each ring was composed of an inner and an outer layer. Each layer contained an array of 22 to 24 SLO molecules. On the top of the ring, we found a characteristic crown that projected from the cell membrane. The crown was separated by an electron-dense layer from the basal part of the ring that was embedded in the lipid bilayer of the erythrocyte membrane. Heights of the three parts, namely, the crown (head), the space (neck), and the basal portion (base), were ca. 3.2, 1.6, and 5.0 nm, respectively, and we postulated that these parts are the constituents of a single SLO molecule. The volumes of SLO molecules in the inner and outer layers were calculated to be 77 and 88 nm3. On the basis of a model of the structure of SLO, we propose some new details of the mechanisms of hemolysis by SLO toxin
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