The rate of endocytosis of transferrin receptors, occupied or unoccupied with transferrin, was measured on the cell line K562. At 37 degrees C, receptors, radioiodinated on the cell surface at 4 degrees C, were internalized equally rapidly in the presence or absence of transferrin. In both cases, 50% of the labeled receptors became resistant to externally added trypsin in 5 min. An antitransferrin antibody was used to show directly that the receptors had entered the cells without bound transferrin. The distribution of the receptors on the cell surface was revealed by antibody and protein A-gold staining after prolonged incubation in the presence or absence of transferrin. The receptors were concentrated in coated pits under both conditions. The data suggest that endocytosis of transferrin receptors is not "triggered" by ligand binding and raise the possibility that ligand-induced down-regulation of surface receptors may not occur by this mechanism. Instead receptors may be recognized as being ligand-occupied, not at the cell surface, but at some other site in the recycling pathway such as the endosome.

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