Thy-1 is a membrane protein that is attached to the plasma membrane by a glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol anchor. Purified rat brain Thy-1 could be reincorporated into the plasma membrane of murine Thy-1- cells directly from aqueous suspension and without the use of detergents. A peripheral staining pattern similar to that observed for endogenous Thy-1 was achieved. Treatment with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C removed nearly all antibody staining due to either endogenous or inserted Thy-1. Fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP) was used to compare the lateral mobility of endogenous and inserted Thy-1. Both forms exhibited large lateral diffusion coefficients, but with a substantial immobile fraction (approximately 50%) indicating that the immobile fraction was not due either to chemical differences between inserted and native Thy-1 or to some surface Thy-1 molecules having a protein anchor. However, the inserted Thy-1 failed to activate mouse T lymphocytes upon crosslinking as assayed by [3H]thymidine uptake. Since Thy-1 could be directly labeled with rhodamine, the effect of the size of the labeling ligand on the mobility obtained by the FRAP technique could be explored. Rhodamine-conjugated MRC-OX7 monoclonal antibody or its fragments [R-F(ab)2 or R-Fab] were compared with rhodamine as labels for Thy-1. The measured diffusion coefficients were 1.6 x 10(-9), 2.0 x 10(-9), and 3.2 x 10(-9) cm2/sec for Thy-1 labeled with R-F(ab)2, R-Fab, and rhodamine, respectively; mobile fractions were all in the 40-50% range. Thus, the size of the ligand affects the lateral mobility of this labeled membrane protein to a measurable extent.