The pathways of metabolic processing of exogenously administered GM1 ganglioside in rat liver was investigated at the subcellular level. The GM1 used was 3H-labelled at the level of long-chain base ([Sph(sphingosine)-3H]GM1) or of terminal galactose ([Gal-3H]GM1). The following radioactive compounds, derived from exogenous GM1, were isolated and chemically characterized: gangliosides GM2, GM3, GD1a and GD1b (nomenclature of Svennerholm [(1964) J. Lipid Res. 5, 145-155] and IUPAC-IUB Recommendations [(1977) Lipids 12, 455-468]); lactosylceramide, glucosylceramide and ceramide; sphingomyelin. GM2, GM3, lactosylceramide, glucosylceramide and ceramide, relatively more abundant shortly after GM1 administration, were mainly present in the lysosomal fraction and reflected the occurrence of a degradation process. 3H2O was also produced in relevant amounts, indicating complete degradation of GM1, although no free long-chain bases could be detected. GD1a and GD1b, relatively more abundant later on after administration, were preponderant in the Golgi-apparatus fraction and originated from a biosynthetic process. More GD1a was produced starting from [Sph-3H]GM1 than from [Gal-3H]GM1, and radioactive GD1b was present only after [Sph-3H]GM1 injection. This indicates the use of two biosynthetic routes, one starting from a by-product of GM1 degradation, the other implicating direct sialylation of GM1. Both routes were used to produce GD1a, but only the first one for producing GD1b. Sphingomyelin was the major product of GM1 processing, especially at the longer times after injection, and arose from a by-product of GM1 degradation, most likely ceramide.

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