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Extraction of SC-1 cells (African green monkey kidney) with the detergent Triton X-100 in combination with stereo high-voltage electron microscopy of whole mount preparations has been used as an approach to determine the mode of action of cytochalasin D on cells. The cytoskeleton of extracted BSC-1 cells consists of substrate-associated filament bundles (stress fibers) and a highly cross-linked network of four major filament types extending throughout the cell body; 10-nm filaments, actin microfilaments, microtubules, and 2- to 3-nm filaments. Actin filaments and 2- to 3-nm filaments form numerous end- to-side contacts with other cytoskeletal filaments. Cytochalasin D treatment severely disrupts network organization, increases the number of actin filament ends, and leads to the formation of filamentous aggregates or foci composed mainly of actin filaments. Metabolic inhibitors prevent filament redistribution, foci formation, and cell arborization, but not disorganization of the three-dimensional filament network. In cells first extracted and then treated with cytochalasin D, network organization is disrupted, and the number of free filament ends is increased. Supernates of preparations treated in this way contain both short actin filaments and network fragments (i.e., actin filaments in end-to-side contact with other actin filaments). It is proposed that the dramatic effects of cytochalasin D on cells result from both a direct interaction of the drug with the actin filament component of cytoskeletal networks and a secondary cellular response. The former leads to an immediate disruption of the ordered cytoskeletal network that appears to involve breaking of actin filaments, rather than inhibition of actin filament-filament interactions (i.e., disruption of end-to-side contacts). The latter engages network fragments in an energy-dependent (contractile) event that leads to the formation of filament foci.