Acidification of endocytic compartments is necessary for the proper sorting and processing of many ligands and their receptors. Robbins and co-workers have obtained Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell mutants that are pleiotropically defective in endocytosis and deficient in ATP-dependent acidification of endosomes isolated by density centrifugation (Robbins, A. R., S. S. Peng, and J. L. Marshall. 1983. J. Cell Biol. 96:1064-1071; Robbins, A. R., C. Oliver, J. L. Bateman, S. S. Krag, C. J. Galloway, and I. Mellman. 1984. J. Cell Biol. 99:1296-1308). In this and the following paper (Yamashiro, D. J., and F. R. Maxfield. 1987. J. Cell Biol. 105:2723-2733) we describe detailed studies of endosome acidification in the mutant and wild-type CHO cells. Here we describe a new microspectrofluorometry method based on changes in fluorescein fluorescence when all cellular compartments are equilibrated to the same pH value. Using this method we measured the pH of endocytic compartments during the first minutes of endocytosis. We found in wild-type CHO cells that after 3 min, fluorescein-labeled dextran (F-Dex) was in endosomes having an average pH of 6.3. By 10 min, both F-Dex and fluorescein-labeled alpha 2-macroglobulin (F-alpha 2M) had reached acidic endosomes having an average pH of 6.0 or below. In contrast, endosome acidification in the CHO mutants DTG 1-5-4 and DTF 1-5-1 was markedly slowed. The average endosomal pH after 5 min was 6.7 in both mutant cell lines. At least 15 min was required for F-Dex and F-alpha 2M to reach an average pH of 6.0 in DTG 1-5-4. Acidification of early endocytic compartments is defective in the CHO mutants DTG 1-5-4 and DTF 1-5-1, but pH regulation of later compartments on both the recycling pathway and lysosomal pathway is nearly normal. The properties of the mutant cells suggest that proper functioning of pH regulatory mechanisms in early endocytic compartments is critical for many pH-mediated processes of endocytosis.

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