We have used proteinase K as a probe to detect cytoplasmically and luminally exposed segments of nascent polypeptides undergoing transport across mammalian microsomal membranes. A series of translocation intermediates consisting of discrete-sized nascent chains was prepared by including microsomal membranes in cell-free translations of mRNAs lacking termination codons. The truncated mRNAs were derived from preprolactin and the G protein of vesicular stomatitis virus and encoded nascent chains ranging between 64 and 200 amino acid residues long. Partially translocated nascent chains of 100 amino acid residues or less were insensitive to protease digestion from the external surface of the membrane while longer nascent chains were susceptible to digestion by externally added protease. We conclude that the increased protease sensitivity of larger nascent chains is due to the exposure of a segment of the nascent polypeptide on the cytoplasmic face of the membrane. In contrast, low molecular weight nascent chains were remarkably resistant to protease digestion even after detergent solubilization of the membrane. The protease resistant behaviour of detergent solubilized nascent chains could be abolished by release of the polypeptide from the ribosome or by the addition of protein denaturants. We propose that the protease resistance of partially translocated nascent chains can be ascribed to components of the translocation apparatus that remain bound to the nascent chain after detergent solubilization of the membrane.

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