Members of the cytokine receptor family are composed of several noncovalently linked chains with sequence and structure homologies in their extracellular domain. Receptor subfamily members share at least one component: thus the receptors for interleukin (IL) 2 and IL15 have common beta and gamma chains, while those for IL2, 4, 7, and 9 have a common gamma chain. The intracellular pathway followed by IL2 receptors after ligand binding and endocytosis was analyzed by immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy in a human T lymphocytic cell line. Surprisingly, the alpha, beta, and gamma chains had different intracellular localizations after being endocytosed together. The alpha chain was always in transferrin-positive compartments (early/recycling endosomes), both at early and late internalization times, but was never detected in rab7-positive compartments (late endosomes). On the other hand, at late internalization times, the beta and gamma chains were excluded from transferrin-positive organelles and did not colocalize with alpha. Furthermore, beta could be found in rab7-positive vesicles. These differences suggest that the alpha chain recycles to the plasma membrane, while the beta and gamma chains are sorted towards the degradation pathway. The half-lives of these three chains on the cell surface also reflect their different intracellular fates after endocytosis. The beta and gamma chains are very short-lived polypeptides since their half-life on the surface is only approximately 1 h, whereas alpha is a much more stable surface protein. This shows for the first time that components of a multimeric receptor can be sorted separately along the endocytic pathway.

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