Vascular endothelium in vivo appears to function as a polarized epithelium. To determine whether cellular polarity exists at the level of the plasma membrane, we have examined cultured endothelial monolayers for evidence of differential distribution of externally disposed plasmalemmal proteins at apical and basal cell surfaces. Lactoperoxidase beads were used to selectively label the apical surfaces of confluent endothelial monolayers, the total surfaces of nonenzymatically resuspended cells, and the basal surfaces of monolayers inverted on poly-L-lysine-coated coverslips, while maintaining greater than 98% viability in all samples. Comparison of the SDS PAGE radioiodination patterns obtained for each surface revealed a number of specific bands markedly enriched on either apical or basal surface. This polarized distribution involved membrane-associated as well as integral membrane proteins and was observed in several strains of bovine aortic endothelial cells, as well as in both primary and passaged human umbilical vein endothelial cells. In contrast, two morphologically nonpolarized cell types, bovine aortic smooth muscle and mouse peritoneal macrophages, did not display differential localization of integral membrane proteins. Polarized distribution of integral membrane proteins was established before the formation of a confluent monolayer. When inverted (basal-side-up) monolayers were returned to culture, the apical-side-up pattern was reexpressed within a few days. These results demonstrate that cell surface-selective expression of plasmalemmal proteins is an intrinsic property of viable endothelial cells in vitro. This apical/basal asymmetry of membrane structure may provide a basis for polarized endothelial functions in vivo.

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