The microviscosity and fluidity of erythrocyte ghost membranes from lead workers and control subjects was measured by fluorescence polarisation using the fluorophore, 1,6-diphenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene (DPH). Increased lead was associated with a significant decrease in the average microviscosity of resealed and unsealed erythrocyte membranes. Since DPH fluorescence reflects the organisation of lipids in the central core of the membrane, two aspects of phospholipid metabolism were investigated. Phospholipids were extracted from red blood cell ghost membranes and identified by high performance liquid chromatography. The ratio of phosphatidyl choline to phosphatidyl ethanolamine, an established correlate of membrane fluidity, was significantly increased in lead workers. This is attributed to the known increases in red blood cell cholesterol in lead workers and the structural incompatibility of phosphatidyl ethanolamine and cholesterol, which result in a compensatory increase of phosphatidyl choline. Erythrocyte ghost membranes from control subjects were resealed with the intermediates in phospholipid synthesis that increase with a lead inhibited decrease in red blood cell pyrimidine 5'-nucleotidase. Membrane fluidity was not modified by incubation with cytidine triphosphate, uridine triphosphate, cytidine diphosphate choline, or cytidine diphosphate ethanolamine. Alterations in the microviscosity of the lipid regions of the hydrophobic core of the erythrocyte membrane bilayer and in the phospholipid composition of the membrane may be defects which contribute to the clinical and biochemical instability of the red blood cell on exposure to lead.
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