We have used biochemical and morphological techniques to demonstrate that hepatocytes in the perfused liver bind, internalize, and degrade substantial amounts of murine epidermal growth factor (EGF) via a receptor-mediated process. Before ligand exposure, about 300,000 high-affinity receptors were detectable per cell, displayed no latency, and co-distributed with conventional plasma membrane markers. Cytochemical localization using EGF coupled to horseradish peroxidase (EGF-HRP) revealed that the receptors were distributed along the entire sinusoidal and lateral surfaces of hepatocytes. When saturating concentrations of EGF were perfused through a liver at 35 degrees C, ligand clearance was biphasic with a rapid primary phase of 20,000 molecules/min per cell that dramatically changed at 15-20 min to a slower secondary phase of 2,500 molecules/min per cell. During the primary phase of uptake, approximately 250,000 molecules of EGF and 80% of the total functional receptors were internalized into endocytic vesicles which could be separated from enzyme markers for plasma membranes and lysosomes on sucrose gradients. The ligand pathway was visualized cytochemically 2-25 min after EGF-HRP internalization and a rapid transport from endosomes at the periphery to those in the Golgi apparatus-lysosome region was observed (t 1/2 approximately equal to 7 min). However, no 125I-EGF degradation was detected for at least 20 min. Within 30 min after EGF addition, a steady state was reached which lasted up to 4 h such that (a) the rate of EGF clearance equaled the rate of ligand degradation (2,500 molecules/min per cell); (b) a constant pool of undegraded ligand was maintained in endosomes; and (c) the number of accessible (i.e., cell surface) receptors remained constant at 20% of initial values. By 4 h hepatocytes had internalized and degraded 3 and 2.3 times more EGF, respectively, than the initial number of available receptors, even in the presence of cycloheximide and without substantial loss of receptors. All of these results suggest that EGF receptors are internalized and that their rate of recycling to the surface from intracellular sites is governed by the rate of entry of ligand and/or receptor into lysosomes.

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