Non-phagocytic eukaryotic cells can internalize particles <1 µm in size, encompassing pathogens, liposomes for drug delivery or lipoplexes applied in gene delivery. In the present study, we have investigated the effect of particle size on the pathway of entry and subsequent intracellular fate in non-phagocytic B16 cells, using a range of fluorescent latex beads of defined sizes (50–1000 nm). Our data reveal that particles as large as 500 nm were internalized by cells via an energy-dependent process. With an increase in size (50–500 nm), cholesterol depletion increased the efficiency of inhibition of uptake. The processing of the smaller particles was significantly perturbed upon microtubule disruption, while displaying a negligible effect on that of the 500 nm beads. Inhibitor and co-localization studies revealed that the mechanism by which the beads were internalized, and their subsequent intracellular routing, was strongly dependent on particle size. Internalization of microspheres with a diameter <200 nm involved clathrin-coated pits. With increasing size, a shift to a mechanism that relied on caveolae-mediated internalization became apparent, which became the predominant pathway of entry for particles of 500 nm in size. At these conditions, delivery to the lysosomes was no longer apparent. The data indicate that the size itself of (ligand-devoid) particles can determine the pathway of entry. The clathrin-mediated pathway of endocytosis shows an upper size limit for internalization of approx. 200 nm, and kinetic parameters may determine the almost exclusive internalization of such particles along this pathway rather than via caveolae.

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