We have studied the effects of brefeldin A (BFA) on the tubular endosomes in AtT20 and HeLa cells (Tooze, J., and M. Hollinshead. 1991. J. Cell Biol. 115:635-653) by electron microscopy of cells labeled with three endocytic tracers, HRP, BSA-gold, and transferrin conjugated to HRP, and by immunofluorescence microscopy. For the latter we used antibodies specific for transferrin receptor, and, in the case of AtT20 cells, also antibodies specific for synaptophysin. In HeLa cells BFA at concentrations ranging from 1 micrograms to 10 micrograms/ml causes the dispersed patches of network of preexisting tubular early endosomes to be incorporated within 5 min into tubules approximately 50 nm in diameter but up to 40-50 microns long. These long, straight tubular endosomes are aligned along microtubules; they branch relatively infrequently to form an open network or reticulum extending from the cell periphery to the microtubule organizing center (MTOC). As the incubation with BFA is prolonged beyond 5 min, a steady state is reached in which many tubules are located in a dense network enclosing the centrioles, with branches extending in a more open network to the periphery. This effect of BFA, which is fully reversed within 15-30 min of washing out, is inhibited by pre-incubating the cells with sodium azide and 2-deoxy-D-glucose. In AtT20 cells BFA at 5 micrograms/ml or above causes the same sorts of changes, preexisting tubular endosomes are recruited into a more continuous endosomal network, and there is a massive accumulation of this network around the MTOC. Maintenance of the BFA-induced endosomal reticulum in both cell types is dependent upon the integrity of microtubules. In AtT20 cells BFA at 1 microgram/ml has no detectable effect on the early endosomal system but the Golgi stacks are converted to clusters of tubules and vesicles that remain in the region of the MTOC during prolonged incubations. Therefore, the Golgi apparatus in these cells is more sensitive to BFA than the early endosomes. The morphological evidence suggests that all the tubular early endosomes in BFA-treated HeLa and AtT20 cells are linked together in a single reticulum. Consistent with this, incubations as short as 1-3 min with 10 or 20 mg/ml HRP in the medium result in the entire endosomal reticulum in most of the BFA-treated cells being filled with HRP reaction product.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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