The secretory process in pituitary mammotrophs was analyzed by quantitative electron microscope autoradiography. Dispersed pituitary cells from estrogen-treated female rats were subjected to pulse-labeling with [3H]leucine (5 min) followed by a chase incubation of up to 4 h. Autoradiograms were prepared using fine-grained emulsion (Kodak 129-01), and analyzed using a three-step "mask analysis' procedure: (a) the distribution of autoradiographic grains is determined as in a simple grain density analysis; (b) masks (transparent overlays) are used to generate expected grains from assumed sources; and (c) a computer program compares these two distributions and varies the expected distribution to match the observed distribution, thereby identifying the radioactive sources in the tissue. The overall route of intracellular transport of prolactin from rough endoplasmic reticulum (ER) leads to Golgi complex leads to immature secretory granules leads to mature secretory granules was as established in previous studies. However, by use of the high resolution emulsion and method of analysis, the precision with which label could be localized within individual source compartments was much greater and the time resolution was much sharper than achieved previously using Ilford L4 emulsion and simple grain density analysis. The main new findings were as follows: (a) the ER was essentially drained of radioactivity by 30 min, the Golgi complex by 1 h, and the immature secretory granules by 2h postpulse. This indicates that the secretory product (prolactin) is rapidly and efficiently transported out of these compartments. (b) approximately 30% of the total radioactivity remains located in the ground cytoplasm over the entire postpulse period examined (up to 4 h), and by 30 min postpulse the grain density in the ground cytoplasm exceeded that of the ER. This indicates the ability to resolve ER-associated label (presumably associated mainly with secretory products) from the cytoplasmic label (presumably associated with nonsecretory proteins). (c) the specific activity of immature secretory granules was much greater than previously appreciated; at 1 h postpulse it was greater than 200 times that of the adjacent Golgi complex cisternae. This large dynamic range in observed grain density demonstrates the ability to effectively correct for radiation spread and thus to detect with great accuracy high concentration of label even from very small structures (20-100 nm) which constitute a small percentage (less than 1%) of the total cell area.

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