The spontaneous turnover of plasma-membrane sterols, as measured by their transfer to the endoplasmic reticulum, was measured in quiescent cultured human skin fibroblasts and monkey arterial smooth-muscle cells. The plasma-membrane sterol pool was pulse-labelled with trace amounts of either [3H]desmosterol or [3H]cholesterol. We then measured the enzymic conversion of [3H]desmosterol into [3H]cholesterol and of [3H]cholesterol into [3H]cholesteryl esters in intact cells. Depending on the probe used, markedly different transfer or conversion rates were found in these cells. In quiescent human skin fibroblasts, incubated in a serum-free medium, about 1.1% of the plasma-membrane [3H]desmosterol was converted into [3H]cholesterol/h, whereas in monkey arterial smooth-muscle cells the corresponding rate was 0.4%. Under similar experimental conditions, these cells esterified less than 0.02% (fibroblasts) and 0.12% (smooth-muscle cells) of the plasma-membrane [3H]cholesterol/h. The movement of sterols from the plasma membrane to the endoplasmic reticulum, as measured by the conversion of [3H]desmosterol into [3H]cholesterol was not blocked by colchicine, but was markedly enhanced by 3% (w/v) dimethyl sulphoxide. In all, these results indicate that plasma-membrane sterols of cultured cells are continuously transferred to the interior of the cell at a rate substantially higher than previously appreciated. This turnover of plasma-membrane sterol molecules took place even when there was no mass transfer of sterols into the cells.

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