Single-molecule epifluorescence microscopy was used to observe the translational motion of GPI-linked and native I-E(k) class II MHC membrane proteins in the plasma membrane of CHO cells. The purpose of the study was to look for deviations from Brownian diffusion that might arise from barriers to this motion. Detergent extraction had suggested that these proteins may be confined to lipid microdomains in the plasma membrane. The individual I-E(k) proteins were visualized with a Cy5-labeled peptide that binds to a specific extracytoplasmic site common to both proteins. Single-molecule trajectories were used to compute a radial distribution of displacements, yielding average diffusion coefficients equal to 0.22 (GPI-linked I-E(k)) and 0.18 microm(2)/s (native I-E(k)). The relative diffusion of pairs of proteins was also studied for intermolecular separations in the range 0.3-1.0 microm, to distinguish between free diffusion of a protein molecule and diffusion of proteins restricted to a rapidly diffusing small domain. Both analyses show that motion is predominantly Brownian. This study finds no strong evidence for significant confinement of either GPI-linked or native I-E(k) in the plasma membrane of CHO cells.