The transfer of newly synthesized membrane proteins moving from the rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) to the Golgi complex has been studied by electron microscopy in HEp-2 cells transfected with cDNAs for chimeric proteins. These proteins consist of a reporter enzyme, horseradish peroxidase (HRP), anchored to the transmembrane domains of two integral membrane proteins, the transferrin receptor and sialyl-transferase. The chimeras are distributed throughout the nuclear envelope, RER, vesicular tubular clusters (VTCs) and a network of tubules in the cis-Golgi area. At 20 degrees C tubules containing chimera connect the RER to the VTCs and to the cis-Golgi network. On transfer to 37 degrees C in the presence of dithiothreitol (DTT), the chimeras are seen to move from the RER and through the Golgi stack. With this temperature shift the direct connections with the RER are lost and free vesicles form; some of these vesicles contain HRP reaction product which is much more concentrated than in the adjacent RER while others lack reaction product entirely. In cells expressing SSHRPKDEL, DAB reaction product remains distributed throughout the RER, the VTCs, and the cis-Golgi network for prolonged periods in the presence of DTT and almost all of the vesicles which form at 37 degrees C are DAB-positive. Together these observations demonstrate that all three chimeras are transported from the RER to the cis-Golgi in free, 40-60-nm vesicles at 37 degrees C. They also suggest that the retrograde traffic which carries SSHRPKDEL back to the RER is probably mediated by vesicles with a similar morphology but which, in cells expressing membrane-anchored chimeras, lack detectable reaction product.

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