Evidence is accumulating that a distinct compartment(s) exists in the secretory pathway interposed between the rough ER (RER) and the Golgi stack. In this study we have defined a novel post-RER, pre-Golgi compartment where unassembled subunits of rubella virus (RV) E1 glycoprotein accumulate. When RV E1 is expressed in CHO cells in the absence of E2 glycoprotein, transport of E1 to the Golgi complex is arrested. The compartment in which E1 accumulates consists of a tubular network of smooth membranes which is in continuity with the RER but has distinctive properties from either the RER, Golgi, or previously characterized intermediate compartments. It lacks RER and Golgi membrane proteins and is not disrupted by agents which disrupt either the RER (thapsigargin, ionomycin) or Golgi (nocodazole and brefeldin A). However, luminal ER proteins bearing the KDEL signal have access to this compartment. Kinetically the site of E1 arrest lies distal to or at the site where palmitylation occurs and proximal to the low temperature 15 degrees C block. Taken together the findings suggest that the site of E1 arrest corresponds to, or is located close to the exit site from the ER. This compartment could be identified morphologically because it is highly amplified in cells overexpressing unassembled E1 subunits, but it may have its counterpart among the transitional elements of non-transfected cells. We conclude that the site of E1 arrest may represent a new compartment or a differentiated proximal moiety of the intermediate compartment.

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