The potassium permeability of Rickettsia prowazekii was characterized by chemical measurement of the intracellular sodium and potassium pools and isotopic flux measurements with 86Rb+ as a tracer. R. prowazekii, in contrast to Escherichia coli, did not maintain a high potassium-to-sodium ratio in their cytoplasm except when the potassium-to-sodium ratio in the extracellular medium was high or when the extracellular concentrations of both cations were low (ca. 1 mM). Both influx and efflux assays with 86Rb+ demonstrated that the rickettsial membrane had limited permeability to potassium and that incorporation of valinomycin into these cells increased these fluxes at least 10-fold. The transport of potassium showed specificity and dependence on rickettsial metabolism. The increased flux of potassium which results from the incorporation of valinomycin into the rickettsial membrane was detrimental to both lysine transport and lysis of erythrocytes by the rickettsiae
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