The factors influencing the overall mobility of the major proteins of the acetylcholine receptor-rich membranes from Torpedo marmorata have been investigated by saturation transfer ESR spectroscopy and the lateral distribution of these proteins has been studied by electron microscopy. A spin-labelled derivative of maleimide, 3-maleimido-2,2,5,5-tetramethyl-1-pyrrolidinyloxyl (MSL), was used under various conditions of incubation, enabling us to attach it mainly to either an extrinsic protein of 43 kdaltons, or an intrinsic protein (40 kdaltons) bearing the alpha-toxin-binding site. (1) The direct reaction of MSL with the membrane fragments resulted in almost exclusive labelling of the 43 kdalton protein, an extrinsic protein located on the inner face of the receptor-rich membranes. (2) After the free SH groups were blocked with N-ethylmaleimide and the disulfide bridges opened with the reducing agent dithiothreitol, MSL reacted with both the 40 and 43 kdalton proteins (6.0 +/- 0.6 MSL molecules per alpha-toxin-binding site). (3) After the latter labelling procedure membranes were exposed to pH 11, resulting in extraction of the 43 kdalton protein and leaving 2.2 +/- 0.4 MSL molecules per alpha-toxin-binding site; sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis performed with N-[14C] ethylmaleimide suggested that MSL was bound mainly to the 40 kdalton polypeptide chain of the acetylcholine receptor. The following conclusions were made with the native and alkaline-treated membranes: In the native membranes, saturation transfer ESR does not reveal any significant protein rotational diffusion (rotational correlation time tau C greater than 1 ms). Temperature variations and/or lipid modifications obtained by fusion of exogenous lipids and/or cholesterol exchange have little influence on the saturation transfer ESR spectra. Electron microscopy reveals that upon lipid addition, proteins remain in the form of clusters while areas depleted of proteins appear. On the other hand, alkaline treatment strikingly enhances the motion of the MSL-labelled proteins in the membrane (100 less than or equal to tau c less than or equal to 120 microseconds). Furthermore, the rotational diffusion of the MSL-labelled proteins (mainly the 40 kdalton protein) becomes sensitive to temperature, lipid composition and the lipid-to-proteins ratio. Electron microscopy shows that alkaline extraction does not cause large reorganization of the acetylcholine receptor in the plane of the membrane. However, when phospholipids are added to pH 11 treated membranes, a dispersion of the receptor and rosettes is observed. In contrast, cholesterol enrichment of the latter membranes induces clustering of the receptor immobilization as judged by saturation transfer ESR. Upon reassociation of the pH 11 soluble proteins with the alkaline-treated membranes, the restriction of the acetylcholine receptor rotational mobility is also restored (tau c greater than or equal to 1 ms).