Depletion of intracellular K+ has been reported to result in an arrest of the formation of coated pits in human fibroblasts (Larkin, J.M., M.S. Brown, J.L. Goldstein, and R.G.W. Anderson, 1983, Cell, 33:273-285). We have studied the effects of K+ depletion on the cytotoxicities of ricin, Pseudomonas exotoxin A, and diphtheria toxin in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. The cytotoxicities of ricin and Pseudomonas toxin were enhanced in K+-depleted CHO cells whereas the cytotoxicity of diphtheria toxin was reduced by K+ depletion. The effects of NH4Cl on the cytotoxicities of ricin, Pseudomonas toxin, and diphtheria toxin were found to be similar to those of K+ depletion, and there were no additive or synergistic effects on ricin cytotoxicity by NH4Cl in K+-depleted medium. The enhancement of ricin cytotoxicity by K+ depletion could be completely reversed by the addition of K+, Rb+, and partially by the addition of Cs+, before the ricin treatment, whereas Li+ was ineffective. These protective effects of K+ or Rb+ requires a functional Na+/K+ ATPase. CHO cells grown in K+-depleted media were found to contain 6.3-fold increase in intracellular Na+ level, concomitant with a 10-fold reduction in intracellular K+ level. The enhanced cytotoxicity of ricin in K+-free medium and the increased uptake of Na+ could be abolished by amiloride or amiloride analogues, which are known to be potent inhibitors of the Na+/H+ antiport system. Our results suggest that a depletion of intracellular K+ results in an influx of Na+, which is accompanied by the extrusion of H+. Consequently, there is an alkalinization of the cytosol and the ricin-containing endosomes. As a result, ricin is more efficiently released from the endosomes in-K+-depleted cells. Results from the studies of the binding, internalization, and degradation of 125I-ricin, and the kinetics of inhibition of protein synthesis by ricin in K+-depleted cells are consistent with this working hypothesis.

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