Assembly proteins were extracted from bovine brain clathrin-coated vesicles with 0.5 M Tris and purified by clathrin-Sepharose affinity chromatography, then adsorbed to mica and examined by freeze-etch electron microscopy. The fraction possessing maximal ability to promote clathrin polymerization, termed AP-2, was found to be a tripartite structure composed of a relatively large central mass flanked by two smaller mirror-symmetric appendages. Elastase treatment quantitatively removed the appendages and clipped 35 kD from the molecule's major approximately 105-kD polypeptides, indicating that the appendages are made from portions of these polypeptides. The remaining central masses no longer promote clathrin polymerization, suggesting that the appendages are somehow involved in the clathrin assembly reaction. The central masses are themselves relatively compact and brick-shaped, and are sufficiently large to contain two copies of the molecule's other major polypeptides (16- and 50-kD), as well as two copies of the approximately 70-kD protease-resistant portions of the major approximately 105-kD polypeptides. Thus the native molecule seems to be a dimeric, bilaterally symmetrical entity. Direct visualization of AP-2 binding to clathrin was accomplished by preparing mixtures of the two molecules in buffers that marginally inhibit AP-2 aggregation and cage assembly. This revealed numerous examples of AP-2 molecules binding to the so-called terminal domains of clathrin triskelions, consistent with earlier electron microscopic evidence that in fully assembled cages, the AP's attach centrally to inwardly-directed terminal domains of the clathrin molecule. This would place AP-2s between the clathrin coat and the enclosed membrane in whole coated vesicles. AP-2s linked to the membrane were also visualized by enzymatically removing the clathrin from brain coated vesicles, using purified 70 kD, uncoating ATPase plus ATP. This revealed several brick-shaped molecules attached to the vesicle membrane by short stalks. The exact stoichiometry of APs to clathrin in such vesicles, before and after uncoating, remains to be determined.

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