Reduction of the cholesterol level in membranes of epithelial Madin–Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells reverses the apical-to-basolateral transport ratio of the apical membrane marker protein influenza virus haemagglutinin and the secreted glycoprotein gp80. At the same time, basolateral transport of the vesicular stomatitis virus G protein is unaffected [Keller and Simons (1998) J. Cell Biol. 140, 1357–1367]. To investigate whether cholesterol depletion influences apical sorting mechanisms specifically, or apical transport capacity more generally, we studied the effect of cholesterol depletion on the secretion of three different classes of molecules from the apical and basolateral surfaces of MDCK cell layers: glycoprotein gp80, sulphated proteoglycans and proteins, and non-glycosylated rat growth hormone. In each case, cholesterol depletion reduced the fraction secreted to the apical medium and increased the fraction secreted basolaterally. The fact that this was observed for all sulphated proteins and proteoglycans and for the non-glycosylated rat growth hormone, which is randomly secreted in untreated cells, indicates that cholesterol depletion reduces the apical transport capacity, rather than interfering with specific recognition and sorting processes.

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