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Diffusion of the complex consisting of low density lipoprotein (LDL) bound to its receptor on the surface of human fibroblasts has been measured with the help of an intensely fluorescent, biologically active LDL derivative, dioctadecylindocarbocyanine LDL (dil(3)-LDL). Fluorescence photobleaching recovering and direct video observations of the Brownian motion of individual LDL-receptor complexes yielded diffusion coefficients for the slow diffusion on cell surfaces and fast diffusion on membrane blebs, respectively. At 10 degrees C, less that 20 percent of the LDL-receptor complex was measurably diffusible either on normal human fibroblasts GM-3348 or on LDL-receptor- internalization-defective J.D. cells GM-2408A. At 21 degrees and 28 degrees C, the diffusion fractions of approximately 75 and 60 percent, respectively, on both cell lines. The lipid analog nitrobenzoxadiazolephosphatidylcholine (NBD-PC) diffused in the GM-2408A cell membrane at 1.5x10(-8) cm(2)/sec at 22 degrees C. On blebs induced in GM-2408A cell membranes, the dil(3)-LDL receptor complex diffusion coefficient increased to approximately 10(-9) cm(2)/s, thus approaching the maximum theoretical predictions for a large protein in the viscous lipid bilayer. Cytoskeletal staining of blebs with NBD- phallacidin, a fluorescent probe specific for F-actin, indicated that loss of the bulk of the F-actin cytoskeleton accompanied the release of the natural constraints on later diffusion observed on blebs. This work shows that the internalization defect of J.D. is not due to immobilization of the LDL-receptor complex since its diffusibility is sufficient to sustain even the internalization rates observed in the native fibroblasts. Nevertheless, as with many other cell membrane receptors, the diffusion coefficient of the LDL-receptor complex is at least two orders of magnitude slower on native membrane than the viscous limit approached on cell membrane blebs where it is released from lateral constraints. However, LDL-receptor diffusion may not limit LDL internalization in normal human fibroblasts.