The brush border of small intestinal enterocytes is highly enriched in cholesterol- and glycosphingolipid-containing membrane microdomains, commonly termed as lipid ‘rafts’. Functionally, transcytosis of IgA and exocytosis of newly made brush-border proteins in enterocytes occur through apical lipid raft-containing compartments, but little is otherwise known about these raft microdomains. We therefore studied in closer detail apical lipid-raft compartments in enterocytes by immunogold electron microscopy and biochemical analyses. Novel membrane structures, deep-apical tubules, were visualized by the non-permeable surface marker Ruthenium Red in the brush-border region of the cells. The surface-connected tubules were labelled by antibodies to caveolin-1 and the glycolipid asialo GM1, and they were sensitive to cholesterol depletion by methyl-β-cyclodextrin, indicating the presence of raft microdomains. Deep-apical tubules were positioned close to the actin rootlets of adjacent microvilli in the terminal web region, which had a diameter of 50–100 nm, and penetrated up to 1 μm into the cytoplasm. Markers for transcytosis, IgA and the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor, as well as the resident brush-border enzyme aminopeptidase N, were present in these deep-apical tubules. We propose that deep-apical tubules are a specialized lipid-raft microdomain in the brush-border region functioning as a hub in membrane trafficking at the brush border. In addition, the sensitivity to cholesterol depletion suggests that deep-apical tubules function as a cell-surface membrane reservoir for cholesterol and for rapid adaptive changes in the size of microvilli at the brush border.

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