We have used a lipophilic styryl dye, N-(3-triethylammoniumpropyl)-4- (p-diethylaminophenyl-hexatrienyl) pyridinium dibromide (FM 4-64), as a vital stain to follow bulk membrane-internalization and transport to the vacuole in yeast. After treatment for 60 min at 30 degrees C, FM 4- 64 stained the vacuole membrane (ring staining pattern). FM 4-64 did not appear to reach the vacuole by passive diffusion because at 0 degree C it exclusively stained the plasma membrane (PM). The PM staining decreased after warming cells to 25 degrees C and small punctate structures became apparent in the cytoplasm within 5-10 min. After an additional 20-40 min, the PM and cytoplasmic punctate staining disappeared concomitant with staining of the vacuolar membrane. Under steady state conditions, FM 4-64 staining was specific for vacuolar membranes; other membrane structures were not stained. The dye served as a sensitive reporter of vacuolar dynamics, detecting such events as segregation structure formation during mitosis, vacuole fission/fusion events, and vacuolar morphology in different classes of vacuolar protein sorting (vps) mutants. A particularly striking pattern was observed in class E mutants (e.g., vps27) where 500-700 nm organelles (presumptive prevacuolar compartments) were intensely stained with FM 4- 64 while the vacuole membrane was weakly fluorescent. Internalization of FM 4-64 at 15 degrees C delayed vacuolar labeling and trapped FM 4- 64 in cytoplasmic intermediates between the PM and the vacuole. The intermediate structures in the cytoplasm are likely to be endosomes as their staining was temperature, time, and energy dependent. Interestingly, unlike Lucifer yellow uptake, vacuolar labeling by FM 4- 64 was not blocked in sec18, sec14, end3, and end4 mutants, but was blocked in sec1 mutant cells. Finally, using permeabilized yeast spheroplasts to reconstitute FM 4-64 transport, we found that delivery of FM 4-64 from the endosome-like intermediate compartment (labeled at 15 degrees C) to the vacuole was ATP and cytosol dependent. Thus, we show that FM 4-64 is a new vital stain for the vacuolar membrane, a marker for endocytic intermediates, and a fluor for detecting endosome to vacuole membrane transport in vitro.