A fluorescence polarization technique with 1,6-diphenyl 1,3,5-hexatriene as a probe were employed to determine the microviscosity, n, in liposomes and biological membranes of different cholesterol to phospholipid mol ratio. From the temperature profile of n the flow activation energy, deltaE, and the unit flow volume, V, were derived. The increase of cholesterol/phospholipid ratio in liposomes is followed by a marked increase in n and a decrease in both deltaE and V. Liposomes of the same phospholipid composition as human erythrocyte membranes display in the extreme cases of cholesterol/phospholipid ratios 0 and 1.4 the values of n(25 degrees C) = 1.8 and 9.1 P, and deltaE = 15.0 and 6.5 kcal/mol, respectively. For most membranes studied the fluorescence polarization characteristics and the corresponding n values are similar to those obtained with these liposomes when the cholesterol/phospholipid level of the liposomes and the membranes were the same. However, unlike in liposomes deltaE of all membranes is in the narrow range of 6.5-8.5 kcal/mol, regardless of its cholesterol/phospholipid level. It is plausible that this is a general characteristic of biological membranes which originates from the vertical movement of membrane proteins to an equilibrium position which maintains constant deltaE and V values. This type of movement should affect the interrelation between lipid fluidity and protein mobility. Lipid microviscosity and the degree of rotational mobility of concanavalin A receptor sites in cell membranes were therefore determined. The examined cells were normal and malignant fibroblasts, as an example of cells that form solid tumours in vivo, and normal and malignant lymphocytes, as an example of cells that form ascites tumours in vivo. In both cell systems, opposite correlations between the lipid fluidity and the mobility of concanavalin A receptors were observed. In the fibroblasts the malignant cells possess a lower lipid fluidity but a higher receptor mobility, whereas in the lymphocytes the malignant cells possess a higher lipid fluidity but a lower receptor mobility. Thus, in these cell systems the degree of rotational mobility of concanavalin A receptors increases upon decreasing the lipid fluidity and decreases upon increasing the fluidity of the lipid core. This dynamic feature is in line with the above proposal according to which the concanavalin A receptor sites become more exposed to the aqueous surrounding upon increasing the microviscosity of the lipid layer and vice versa.