A microcarrier co-culture system for aortic endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells (SMCs) was developed as a model for metabolic interactions between cells of the vessel wall. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) metabolism in SMCs was significantly influenced by co-culture with endothelium. The numbers of high affinity receptors for LDL was increased more than twofold (range, 2.1-5.6), with concomitant increases in LDL receptor-mediated endocytosis and degradation. These effects reached a plateau at an endothelial cell/SMC ratio of 1. Kinetic analysis of the endocytic pathway for LDL in SMCs indicated that, in co-culture with endothelium, there was no alteration in the binding affinity of LDL to its receptors but that the internalization rate constant declined and the rate constant for degradation increased. This analysis suggested that the formation and migration of endocytic vesicles was the rate-limiting step of enhanced LDL metabolism under co-culture conditions. Two mechanisms by which endothelial cells influenced smooth muscle LDL metabolism were identified. First, mitogen(s) derived from endothelial cells stimulated entry of SMCs into the growth cycle, and the changes in LDL metabolism occurred as a consequence of G1-S transition. Second, SMC lipoprotein metabolism was stimulated in the absence of mitogens by a low molecular weight (less than 3,500) factor or factors. Co-culture was a required condition for the latter effect, suggesting that the mediator(s) may be unstable or that cell-cell communication was necessary for expression. These results (a) demonstrate that vascular cell interactions can modify LDL metabolism in SMCs, (b) provide some insights into the mechanisms responsible, and (c) identify co-culture as an experimental approach appropriate to certain aspects of vascular cell biology.

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