The pancreatic acinar carcinoma established in rat by Reddy and Rao (1977, Science 198:78-80) demonstrates heterogeneity of cytodifferentiation ranging from cells containing abundant well-developed secretory granules to those with virtually none. We examined the synthesis intracellular transport and storage of secretory proteins in secretory granule-enriched (GEF) and secretory granule-deficient (GDF) subpopulations of neoplastic acinar cells separable by Percoll gradient centrifugation, to determine the secretory process in cells with distinctly different cytodifferentiation. The cells pulse-labeled with [3H]leucine for 3 min and chase incubated for up to 4 h were analyzed by quantitative electron microscope autoradiography. In GEF neoplastic cells, the results of grain counts and relative grain density estimates establish that the label moves successively from rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) leads to the Golgi apparatus leads to post-Golgi vesicles (vacuoles or immature granules) leads to mature secretory granules, in a manner reminiscent of the secretory process in normal pancreatic acinar cells. The presence of approximately 40% of the label in association with secretory granules at 4 h postpulse indicates that GEF neoplastic cells retain (acquire) the essential regulatory controls of the secretory process. In GDF neoplastic acinar cells the drainage of label from RER is slower, but the peak label of approximately 20% in the Golgi apparatus is reached relatively rapidly (10 min postpulse). The movement of label from the Golgi to the post-Golgi vesicles is evident; further delineation of the secretory process in GDF neoplastic cells, however, was not possible due to lack of secretory granule differentiation. The movement of label from RER leads to the Golgi apparatus leads to the post-Golgi vesicles suggests that GDF neoplastic cells also synthesize secretory proteins, but to a lesser extent than the GEF cells. The reason(s) for the inability of GDF cells to concentrate and store exportable proteins remain to be elucidated.