In human B lymphoblastoid cell lines, the majority of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II heterodimers are located on the cell surface and in endocytic compartments, while invariant chain (Ii)-associated class II molecules represent biosynthetic intermediates which are present mostly in the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi complex. To investigate the origin of the MHC class II-positive compartments and their relation to early endosomes, the intracellular distribution of MHC class II molecules and Ii in relation to endocytic tracers was studied in human lymphoblastoid B cells by immunoelectronmicroscopy on ultrathin cryosections. Cross-linking of surface immunoglobulins, followed by a brief period of internalization of the immune complexes, did not alter the intracellular distribution of MHC class II molecules. While early endosomes were abundantly labeled for the cross-linked immunoglobulins, < 1% of total MHC class II molecules were detectable in early endosomes. MHC class II- and Ii-positive structures associated with the trans-Golgi network can be reached by endocytosed bovine serum albumin (BSA)-gold conjugates after 30 min of internalization. Prolonged exposure to BSA-gold allowed visualization of later endocytic compartments, in which a progressive loss of Ii was observed: first the lumenal portion, and then the cytoplasmic portion of Ii escaped detection, culminating in the formation of MHC class II-positive compartments (MIIC) devoid of Ii. The loss of Ii also correlated with a transition from a multivesicular to a multilaminar, electron-dense MIIC. The intracellular compartments in which class II molecules reside (MIIC) are therefore a heterogeneous set of structures, part of the later aspects of the endocytic pathway.

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