Previous studies have demonstrated that the amino-terminal cytoplasmic domain of GLUT4 contains a phenylalanine-based targeting motif that determines its steady state distribution between the surface and the interior of cells (Piper, R. C., C. Tai, P. Kuleza, S. Pang, D. Warnock, J. Baenziger, J. W. Slot, H. J. Geuze, C. Puri, and D. E. James. 1993. J. Cell Biol. 121:1221). To directly measure the effect that the GLUT4 amino terminus has on internalization and subsequent recycling back to the cell surface, we constructed chimeras in which this sequence was substituted for the amino-terminal cytoplasmic domain of the human transferrin receptor. The chimeras were stably transfected into Chinese hamster ovary cells and their endocytic behavior characterized. The GLUT4-transferrin receptor chimera was recycled back to the cell surface with a rate similar to the transferrin receptor, indicating that the GLUT4 sequence was not promoting intracellular retention of the chimera. The GLUT4-transferrin receptor chimera was internalized at half the rate of the transferrin receptor. Substitution of an alanine for phenylalanine at position 5 slowed internalization of the chimera by twofold, to a level characteristic of bulk membrane internalization. However, substitution of a tyrosine increased the rate of internalization to the level of the transferrin receptor. Neither of these substitutions significantly altered the rate at which the chimeras were recycled back to the cell surface. These results demonstrate that the major function of the GLUT4 amino-terminal domain is to promote the effective internalization of the protein from the cell surface, via a functional phenylalanine-based internalization motif, rather than retention of the transporter within intracellular structures.

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