To study the intracellular transport of newly synthesized sphingolipids in epithelial cells we have used a fluorescent ceramide analog, N-6[7-nitro-2,1,3-benzoxadiazol-4-yl] aminocaproyl sphingosine (C6-NBD-ceramide; Lipsky, N. G., and R. E. Pagano, 1983, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 80:2608-2612) as a probe. This ceramide was readily taken up by filter-grown Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells from liposomes at 0 degrees C. After penetration into the cell, the fluorescent probe accumulated in the Golgi area at temperatures between 0 and 20 degrees C. Chemical analysis showed that C6-NBD-ceramide was being converted into C6-NBD-sphingomyelin and C6-NBD-glucosyl-ceramide. An analysis of the fluorescence pattern after 1 h at 20 degrees C by means of a confocal scanning laser fluorescence microscope revealed that the fluorescent marker most likely concentrated in the Golgi complex itself. Little fluorescence was observed at the plasma membrane. Raising the temperature to 37 degrees C for 1 h resulted in intense plasma membrane staining and a loss of fluorescence from the Golgi complex. Addition of BSA to the apical medium cleared the fluorescence from the apical but not from the basolateral plasma membrane domain. The basolateral fluorescence could be depleted only by adding BSA to the basal side of a monolayer of MDCK cells grown on polycarbonate filters. We conclude that the fluorescent sphingomyelin and glucosylceramide were delivered from the Golgi complex to the plasma membrane where they accumulated in the external leaflet of the membrane bilayer. The results also demonstrated that the fatty acyl labeled lipids were unable to pass the tight junctions in either direction. Quantitation of the amount of NBD-lipids delivered to the apical and the basolateral plasma membranes during incubation for 1 h at 37 degrees C showed that the C6-NBD-glucosylceramide was two- to fourfold enriched on the apical as compared to the basolateral side, while C6-NBD-sphingomyelin was about equally distributed. Since the surface area of the apical plasma membrane is much smaller than that of the basolateral membrane, both lipids achieved a higher concentration on the apical surface. Altogether, our results suggest that the NBD-lipids are sorted in MDCK cells in a way similar to their natural counterparts.

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