A discontinuous-sucrose-gradient procedure for isolating endosomes from mouse lymphoma cells has been developed. After centrifugation, most organelles (especially mitochondria and lysosomes) are recovered in the denser fractions of the gradient, whereas a mixture of plasma membrane and endosomes is present at lighter densities. The endosome recovery in this fraction can be increased (by 100%) by (a) a mild trypsin treatment of the postnuclear supernatant and (b) loading the cell endosomes with a saturating concentration of low-density lipoproteins. Removal of the plasma-membrane contamination was achieved by preincubating the cells with a gold-ricin complex at 4 degrees C. On centrifugation, the gold-loaded membranes sediment to the bottom of the gradient. The endosome preparation isolated by these procedures is less than 6% contaminated by other organelles and contains 42% of internalized 125I-transferrin. We show that these isolated endosomes are functional, as displayed by their ability to fuse and to acidify in a cell-free system. Endosome fusion was studied by a new assay based on the use of fluorescence resonance energy transfer. This fusion is dependent on ATP and on a cytosolic, thermoresistant but trypsin- and N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive, protein factor. Early endosomes fuse more actively among themselves than with late-endocytic vesicles, and they fuse only slowly with plasma-membrane vesicles.

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