Uptake of benzo(a)pyrene by living cultured cells has been visualized in real time using digital fluorescence-imaging microscopy. Benzo(a)pyrene was noncovalently associated with lipoproteins, as a physiologic mode of presentation of the carcinogen to cells. When incubated with either human fibroblasts or murine P388D1 macrophages, benzo(a)pyrene uptake occurred in the absence of endocytosis, with a halftime of approximately 2 min, irrespective of the identity of the delivery vehicles, which were high density lipoproteins, low density lipoproteins, very low density lipoproteins, and 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoylphosphatidylcholine single-walled vesicles. Thus, cellular uptake of benzo(a)pyrene from these hydrophobic donors occurs by spontaneous transfer through the aqueous phase. Moreover, the rate constant for uptake, the extent of uptake, and the intracellular localization of benzo(a)pyrene were identical for both living and fixed cells. Similar rate constants for benzo(a)pyrene efflux from cells to extracellular lipoproteins suggests the involvement of the plasma membrane in the rate-limiting step. The intracellular location of benzo(a)pyrene at equilibrium was coincident with a fluorescent cholesterol analog, N-(7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,3-diazole)-23,24-dinor-5-cholen-22-amine-3 beta-ol. Benzo(a)pyrene did not accumulate in acidic compartments, based on acridine orange fluorescence, or in mitochondria, based on rhodamine-123 fluorescence. When the intracellular lipid volume of isolated mouse peritoneal macrophages was increased by prior incubation of these cells with either acetylated low density lipoproteins or with very low density lipoproteins from a hypertriglyceridemic individual, cellular accumulation of benzo(a)pyrene increased proportionately with increased [1-14C]oleate incorporation into cellular triglycerides and cholesteryl esters. Thus, benzo(a)pyrene uptake by cells is a simple partitioning phenomenon, controlled by the relative lipid volumes of extracellular donor lipoproteins and of cells, and does not involve lipoprotein endocytosis as an obligatory step.

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