The endocytic compartments of the asialoglycoprotein (ASGP) pathway in rat hepatocytes were studied using a combined morphological and biochemical approach in the isolated perfused liver. Use of electron microscopic tracers and a temperature-shift protocol to synchronize ligand entry confirmed the route of ASGP internalization observed in our previous in vivo studies (1) and established conditions under which we could label the contents of successive compartments in the pathway for subcellular fractionation studies. Three endosomal compartments were demonstrated in which ASGPs appear after they enter the cell via coated pits and vesicles but before they reach their site of degradation in lysosomes. These three compartments could be distinguished by their location within the hepatocyte, by their morphological appearance in situ, and by their density in sucrose gradients. The distributions of ASGP receptors, both accessible and latent (revealed by detergent permeabilization), were also examined and compared with that of ligand during subcellular fractionation. Most accessible ASGP receptors co-distributed with conventional plasma membrane markers. However, hepatocytes contain a substantial intracellular pool of latent ASGP binding sites that exceeds the number of cell surface receptors and whose presence is not dependent on ASGP exposure. The distribution of these latent ASGP receptors on sucrose gradients (detected either immunologically or by binding assays) was coincident with that of ligand sequestered within the early endosome compartments. In addition, both early endosomes and the membrane vesicles containing latent ASGP receptors had high cholesterol content, because both shifted markedly in density upon exposure to digitonin.

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