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Neutrophils change shape from round to polar and sequentially polymerize/depolymerize actin following chemotactic peptide activation in suspension. To study the relationship between changes in F-actin content and shape we altered the kinetics/extent of actin polymerization and depolymerization with tBOC peptide, cytochalasin D (CD), and low-dose FMLP, and determined the effect of these alterations on the temporal sequence of changes in neutrophil shape. F-actin was measured by FACS analysis of NBDphallacidin-stained cells and expressed as relative fluorescent intensity (RFI) compared to control (RFI = 1.00). Shape was determined by scanning electron microscopy. FMLP causes serial polymerization/depolymerization of actin (RFI = 1.00 +/- 0.04, 1.60 +/- 0.21, 1.10 +/- 0.18, and 1.05 +/- 0.14) associated with four distinct shapes (round-smooth, round-ruffled, blebbed, and polar) noted at 0, 30, 90, 300 sec respectively. Since blebbed and polar shapes appear concurrent with depolymerization and following polymerization, we determined whether depolymerization is required for polarization of cells. The kinetics of depolymerization were: (1) accelerated by tBOC addition at 45 sec, and (2) slowed by high concentrations of FMLP (greater than 10-7M) (300 sec RFI = 1.46). Neither change altered the time course of shape change. To determine whether duration of actin polymerization defines shape, polymerization was halted by addition of tBOC at 5, 10, 20, 30 sec after FMLP to block actin polymerization and shape was monitored at 300 sec. TBOC added 5-20 sec after FMLP limited neutrophil shape change to the blebbed form, while tBOC addition 30 sec following FMLP resulted in a polar shape at 300 sec. To determine whether the extent of actin polymerization affects the shape change sequence, polymerization was limited by (1) inhibition of polymerization with CD, (2) exposure of cells to low concentrations of FMLP (less than 10-9 M), and (3) interruption of polymerization with tBOC. Actin polymerization to RFI less than 1.35-fold basal results in blebbed shape; polymerization greater than 1.35-fold basal yields polar shape. The data show: (1) the human neutrophil demonstrates intermediate shapes when activated by chemotactic peptide, (2) depolymerization of F-actin does not determine shape, and (3) blebbed shape appears when actin polymerizes for greater than 5 sec; polar shape with polymerization greater than or equal to 30 sec to RFI greater than 1.35-fold basal. The data suggest actin polymerization is required for, and extent of polymerization determines, the shape of human neutrophils.