Caveolin-1 (green) endosomes carry cargo (red) independently of clathrin.


Clathrin-independent endocytosis is revealing itself at last. Intermediary organelles in this pathway have been difficult to identify, due in part to a dearth of markers and, until recently, difficulties in blocking the clathrin-dependent process. But now, Benjamin Nichols (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) has identified a set of endosomes that are uniquely involved in clathrin-independent trafficking.Nichols' results demonstrate that vesicles containing caveolin-1 define a set of early endosomes that are distinct from those that form from clathrin-coated pits. Proteins that were endocytosed independently of clathrin, including GPI-anchored proteins and the cholera toxin B subunit, were found within the caveolin-1–positive endosomes. Even in the absence of clathrin-mediated endocytosis, these proteins were delivered from the plasma membrane to the Golgi.

Although caveolin-1 provides a useful marker for the pathway, the protein was not important for endocytosis. Nichols found that caveolin-1 was sorted away from Golgi-bound vesicles, and diminished caveolin-1 levels did not inhibit clathrin-independent endocytosis. Caveolin-1–containing endosomes have previously been shown to transport SV40 virus to the ER. Nichols believes these may be the same organelles, although this is not yet proven.

The function of the clathrin-independent pathway will be better understood when specific inhibitors can be identified. For now, Nichols hypothesizes that clathrin-independent endocytosis is important for delivery of certain plasma membrane lipids to the trans face of the Golgi, the site of lipid raft formation and Golgi cargo sorting. ▪


Nichols, B. 2002. Nat. Cell Biol. 10.1038/ncb787.