Glycosylated phosphoinositides serve as membrane anchors for numerous eukaryotic cell surface glycoproteins. Recent biochemical and genetic studies indicate that the glycolipids are assembled by sequential addition of components (monosaccharides and phosphoethanolamine) to phosphatidylinositol. The biosynthetic steps are presumed to occur in the ER, but formal proof of this is lacking. We describe experiments designed to establish the subcellular location of the initial steps in glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol (GPI) anchor biosynthesis and to define the transmembrane distribution of early biosynthetic lipid intermediates. The experiments were performed with the thymoma cell line BW5147.3. A subcellular fractionation protocol was used to show that early biosynthetic steps in GPI assembly, i.e., synthesis and deacetylation of N-acetylglucosaminyl phosphatidylinositol, occur in the ER. GPI biosynthetic intermediates were synthesized by incubating the microsomes with UDP-[3H]GlcNAc, and the transmembrane distribution of the labeled lipids was probed with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C (PI-PLC). Treatment of the radiolabeled microsomes with PI-PLC showed that > 70% of the N-acetylglucosaminyl phosphatidylinositol and glucosaminyl phosphatidylinositol could be hydrolyzed, indicating that the two lipids were primarily distributed in the cytoplasmic (outer) leaflet of the microsomes. Similar cleavage results were obtained using Streptolysin O-permeabilized thymoma cells. When permeabilized cells were incubated with UDP-[3H]GlcNAc and treated with PI-PLC, approximately 85% of the radiolabeled N-acetylglucosaminyl phosphatidylinositol and glucosaminyl phosphatidylinositol could be cleaved, indicating that they were accessible to the enzyme. The cumulative data indicate that early GPI intermediates are primarily located in the cytoplasmic leaflet of the ER, and are probably synthesized from PI located in the cytoplasmic leaflet and UDP-GlcNAc synthesized in the cytosol.

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