Rat liver coated vesicle preparations were frequently found to contain small ovoid bodies, which resembled coated vesicles in morphology. We have purified these bodies to homogeneity using sucrose density gradients and preparative agarose gel electrophoresis. When negatively stained and viewed by electron microscopy, the purified structures display a very distinct and complex morphology, resembling the multiple arches which form cathedral vaults. They measure 35 X 65 nm and are therefore considerably larger than ribosomes. When subjected to SDS PAGE, these structures, which we refer to as vaults, appear to contain several minor and five major species: Mr 210,000, 192,000, 104,000, 54,000, and 37,000. One of these (Mr 104,000) greatly predominates, accounting for greater than 70% of the total Coomassie Brilliant Blue-staining protein. Another major species of Mr 37,000 has been identified as a species of small RNA of unusual base composition (adenosine 12.0%, guanosine 29.7%, uridine 30.9%, and 27.4% cytidine), which migrates as a single species in urea PAGE between the 5S and 5.8S ribosomal standards, containing approximately 140 bases. Although the RNA constitutes only 4.6% of the entire structure, the large size of the particle requires that each one contains approximately 9 molecules of this RNA. Antibodies prepared against the entire particle are largely specific for the major (Mr 104,000) polypeptide species. Although they do not directly react with the RNA constituent on Western blots, these antibodies immunoprecipitate a 32P-labeled RNA of identical size from metabolically-labeled rat hepatoma cells. Vaults are observed in partially purified fractions from human fibroblasts, murine 3T3 cells, glial cells, and rabbit alveolar macrophages. It therefore appears that these novel ribonucleoprotein structures are broadly distributed among different cell types. The function of vaults is at present unknown.

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