Epithelial cells express plasma-membrane polarity in order to meet functional requirements that are imposed by their interaction with different extracellular environments. Thus apical and basolateral membrane domains are distinguished that are separated by tight junctions in order to maintain the specific lipid and protein composition of each domain. In hepatic cells, the plasma membrane is also polarized, containing a sinusoidal (basolateral) and a bile canalicular (apical)-membrane domain. Relevant to the biogenesis of these domains are issues concerning sorting, (co-)transport and regulation of transport of domain-specific membrane components. In epithelial cells, specific proteins and lipids, destined for the apical membrane, are sorted in the trans-Golgi network (TGN), which involves their sequestration into cholesterol/sphingolipid ‘rafts ’, followed by ‘direct ’ transport to the apical membrane. In hepatic cells, a direct apical transport pathway also exists, as revealed by transport of sphingolipids from TGN to the apical membrane. This is remarkable, since in these cells numerous apical membrane proteins are ‘indirectly ’ sorted, i.e. they are first transferred to the basolateral membrane prior to their subsequent transcytosis to the apical membrane. This raises intriguing questions as to the existence of specific lipid rafts in hepatocytes. As demonstrated in studies with HepG2 cells, it has become evident that, in hepatic cells, apical transport pathways can be regulated by protein kinase activity, which in turn modulates cell polarity. Finally, an important physiological function of hepatic cells is their involvement in intracellular transport and secretion of bile-specific lipids. Mechanisms of these transport processes, including the role of multidrug-resistant proteins in lipid translocation, will be discussed in the context of intracellular vesicular transport. Taken together, hepatic cell systems provide an important asset to studies aimed at elucidating mechanisms of sorting and trafficking of lipids (and proteins) in polarized cells in general.

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