The intracellular transport and location of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules and associated invariant chain (Ii) were investigated in a human melanoma cell line. In contrast to the class II molecules, which remain stable for greater than 4 h after synthesis, the associated Ii is proteolytically processed within 2 h. During or shortly after synthesis the NH2-terminal cytoplasmic and membrane-spanning segment is in some of the Ii molecules cleaved off; during intracellular transport, class II associated and membrane integrated Ii is processed from its COOH terminus in distinct steps in endocytic compartments. Immunocytochemical studies at the light and electron microscopic level revealed the presence of class II molecules, but not of Ii on the cell surface. Intracellularly both Ii and class II molecules were localized in three morphologically and kinetically distinct compartments, early endosomes, multivesicular bodies, and prelysosomes. This localization in several distinct endosomal compartments contrasts with the localization of class II molecules in mainly one endocytic compartment in B lymphoblastoid cell lines. As in these lymphoblastoid cell lines Ii is known to be rapidly degraded it is conceivable that the rate of proteolysis of the class II associated Ii and its dissociation from class II molecules modulates the retention of the oligomeric complex in endocytic compartments, and as a consequence the steady-state distribution of these molecules within the endosomal system.

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