Ca2+-dependent secretion in Paramecium involves the exocytic release of a paracrystalline secretory product, the trichocyst matrix, which undergoes a characteristic structural change from a highly condensed storage form (Stage I) to an extended needle-like structure (Stage III) during release. We studied trichocyst matrix expansion in vitro to examine factors regulating the state of secretory organelle content. A new method for the isolation of membrane-free, condensed (Stage I) trichocyst matrices is described. These highly purified, condensed matrices were used to develop a rapid quantitative, spectrophotometric assay for matrix expansion to examine factors regulating the Stage I and Stage III transition. Expansion from Stages I to III was elicited in vitro by addition of Ca2+ and we found that at neutral pH, expansion required a Ca2+ concentration slightly above 10(-6)M. Previous studies indicate that calmodulin (CaM) antagonists inhibit matrix expansion in vivo. However, in vitro matrix expansion is normal even when trichocyst matrices are preincubated in CaM antagonists before stimulation. Thus, matrix components themselves are unlikely to be the site of CaM antagonist action in vivo. In vitro matrix expansion is also modulated by pH. Decreasing pH to 6.0 inhibits expansion, i.e., expansion requires higher Ca2+ concentration. Conversely, increasing pH to greater than 7.0 promotes expansion, allowing it to occur at a lower Ca2+ concentration. The pH sensitivity of the Ca2+ binding sites of the matrix suggests that, in vivo, the interior of the trichocyst vesicle may be maintained at an acidic pH. Exposure of cells to acridine orange, a fluorescent amine that accumulates in acidic intracellular compartments, leads to its uptake and concentration within trichocysts. Thus intratrichocyst pH appears to be acidic in vivo and may serve as a regulatory or "safety" mechanism to inhibit premature expansion
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