It has been recently shown (Larkin, J. M., M. S. Brown, J. L. Goldstein, and R. G. W. Anderson, 1983, Cell, 33:273-285) that after a hypotonic shock followed by incubation in a K+-free medium, human fibroblasts arrest their coated pit formation and therefore arrest receptor-mediated endocytosis of low density lipoprotein. We have used this technique to study the endocytosis of transferrin, diphtheria toxin, and ricin toxin by three cell lines (Vero, Wi38/SV40, and Hep2 cells). Only Hep2 cells totally arrested internalization of [125I]transferrin, a ligand transported by coated pits and coated vesicles, after intracellular K+ depletion. Immunofluorescence studies using anti-clathrin antibodies showed that clathrin associated with the plasma membrane disappeared in Hep2 cells when the level of intracellular K+ was low. In the absence of functional coated pits, diphtheria toxin was unable to intoxicate Hep2 cells but the activity of ricin toxin was unaffected by this treatment. By measuring the rate of internalization of [125I]ricin toxin by Hep2 cells, with and without functional coated pits, we have shown that this labeled ligand was transported in both cases inside the cells. Hep2 cells with active coated pits internalized twice as much [125I]ricin toxin as Hep2 cells without coated pits. Entry of ricin toxin inside the cells was a slow process (8% of the bound toxin per 10 min at 37 degrees C) when compared to transferrin internalization (50% of the bound transferrin per 10 min at 37 degrees C). Using the indirect immunofluorescence technique on permeabilized cells, we have shown that Hep2 cells depleted in intracellular K+ accumulated ricin toxin in compartments that were predominantly localized around the cell nucleus. Our study indicates that in addition to the pathway of coated pits and coated vesicles used by diphtheria toxin and transferrin, another system of endocytosis for receptor-bound molecules takes place at the level of the cell membrane and is used by ricin toxin to enter the cytosol.

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