Previously we reported that internalized ligand-receptor complexes are transported within the alveolar macrophage at a rate that is independent of the ligand and/or receptor but is dependent on the endocytic apparatus (Ward, D. M., R. S. Ajioka, and J. Kaplan. 1989. J. Biol. Chem. 264:8164-8170). To probe the mechanism of intracellular vesicle transport, we examined the ability of vesicles internalized at different times to fuse. The mixing of ligands internalized at different times was studied using the 3,3'-diaminobenzidine/horseradish peroxidase density shift technique. The ability of internalized vesicles to fuse was dependent upon their location in the endocytic pathway. When ligands were administered as tandem pulses a significant amount of mixing (20-40%) of vesicular contents was observed. The pattern of mixing was independent of the ligands employed (transferrin, mannosylated BSA, or alpha macroglobulin), the order of ligand addition, and temperature (37 degrees C or 28 degrees C). Fusion was restricted to a brief period immediately after internalization. The amount of fusion in early endosomes did not increase when cells, given tandem pulses, were chased such that the ligands further traversed the early endocytic pathway. Little fusion, also, was seen when a chase was interposed between the two ligand pulses. The temporal segregation of vesicle contents seen in early endosomes was lost within late endosomes. Extensive mixing of vesicle contents was observed in the later portion of the endocytic pathway. This portion of the pathway is defined by the absence of internalized transferrin and is composed of ligands en route to lysosomes. Incubation of cells in iso-osmotic medium in which Na+ was replaced by K+ inhibited movement of internalized ligands to the lysosome, resulting in ligand accumulation within the late endocytic pathway. The accumulation of ligand was correlated with extensive mixing of sequentially internalized ligands. Although significant amounts of ligand degradation were observed, this compartment was devoid of conventional lysosomal markers such as acid glycosidases. These results indicate changing patterns of vesicle fusion within the endocytic pathway, with a complete loss of temporal ligand segregation in a prelysosomal compartment.

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