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Receptor-mediated endocytosis of rat preputial beta-glucuronidase and the glycoconjugate mannose-BSA by rat alveolar macrophages is inhibited by chloroquine and ammonium chloride. We have previously reported that these drugs cause a loss of cell surface binding activity and that they do not inhibit internalization of receptor ligand complexes when incubated with cells at 37 degrees C. In this report we more clearly delineate the intracellular site of weak base inhibition of receptor recycling and the mechanism of that inhibition. From our analysis of the kinetics of ligand transport we conclude that there are two functionally distinct intracellular pools of receptor. One of these, the cycling pool, is not sensitive to the presence of weak bases, and receptor-ligand complexes return from this pool to the cell surface intact. The second pool is responsible for the time-dependent intracellular delivery of ligand to acid vesicles, which is inhibited by weak bases. Chloroquine and ammonium chloride appear to inhibit the dissociation of receptor-ligand complexed in this second pool and thereby the production of free receptors for the continuation of receptor-mediated endocytosis. We examine the internalization and binding of ligand in normal and paraformaldehyde-treated cells and find that these are strongly affected by pH. In particular, the dissociation rate of receptor ligand complexes is enhanced greater than 7.5 fold by lowering the medium pH from 7 to 6. From these results we propose that weak bases raise the pH of acid intracellular compartments, slowing the rate of receptor-ligand dissociation and thereby reducing the cellular pool of free receptors available for further uptake of ligand. In addition, we demonstrate that receptor-ligand complexes cannot return to the cell surface from the amine-sensitive (acid) intracellular pool that led us to call this the nonreleasable pool. This final observation indicates that receptor movements through these two pools are functionally distinct processes.