The transfer of molecules from the cell surface to the early endosomes is mediated by preendosomal vesicles. These vesicles, which have pinched off completely from the plasma membrane but not yet fused with endosomes, form the earliest compartment along the endocytic route. Using a new assay to distinguish between free and cell surface connected vesicle profiles, we have characterized the preedosomal compartment ultrastructurally. Our basic experimental setup was labeling of the entire cell surface at 4 degrees C with Con A-gold, warming of the cells to 37 degrees C to allow endocytosis, followed by replacing incubation medium with fixative, all within either 30 or 60 s. Then the fixed cells were incubated with anti-Con A-HRP to distinguish truly free (gold labeled) endocytic vesicles from surface-connected structures. Finally, analysis of thin (20-30 nm) serial sections and quantification of vesicle diameters were carried out. Based on this approach it is shown that the preendosomal compartment comprises both clathrin-coated and non-coated endocytic vesicles with approximately the same frequency but with distinct diameter distributions, the average noncoated vesicle being smaller (95 nm) than the average coated one (110 nm). In parallel experiments, using an anti-transferrin receptor gold-conjugate as a specific marker for clathrin-dependent endocytosis it is also shown that uncoating of coated vesicles plays only a minor role for the total frequency of noncoated vesicles. Furthermore, after perturbation of clathrin-dependent endocytosis by potassium depletion where uptake of transferrin is blocked, noncoated endocytic vesicles with Con A-gold, but not coated vesicles, exist already after 30 and 60 s. Finally, it is shown that the existence of small, free vesicles in the short-time experiments cannot be ascribed to recycling from the early endosomes.

This content is only available as a PDF.