Although the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) is primarily implicated in the regulation of plasma-membrane chloride permeability, immunolocalization and functional studies indicate the presence of CFTR in the endosomal compartment. The mechanism of CFTR delivery from the cell surface to endosomes is not understood. To delineate the internalization pathway, both the rate and extent of CFTR accumulation in endosomes were monitored in stably transfected Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. The role of clathrin-dependent endocytosis was assessed in cells exposed to hypertonic medium, potassium depletion or intracellular acid-load. These treatments inhibited clathrin-dependent endocytosis by > 90%, as verified by measurements of 125I-transferrin uptake. Functional association of CFTR with newly formed endosomes was determined by an endosomal pH dissipation protocol [Lukacs, Chang, Kartner, Rotstein, Riordan and Grinstein (1992) J. Biol. Chem. 267, 14568-14572]. As a second approach, endocytosis of CFTR was determined after cell-surface biotinylation with the cleavable sulphosuccinimidyl-2-(biotinamido)ethyl-1,3-dithiopropionate. Both the biochemical and the functional assays indicated that arresting the formation of clathrin-coated vesicles inhibited the retrieval of the CFTR from the plasma membrane to endosomes. An overall arrest of membrane traffic cannot account for the inhibition of CFTR internalization, since the fluid-phase endocytosis was not effected by the treatments used. Thus the efficient, constitutive internalization of surface CFTR (5% per min) occurs, predominantly by clathrin-dependent endocytosis. Stimulation of protein phosphorylation by cAMP-dependent protein kinase A and by protein kinase C decreased the rate of internalization of cell-surface biotinylated CFTR, and contributed to a substantial diminution of the internal CFTR pool compared with that of unstimulated cells. These results suggest that the rate of CFTR internalization may participate in the determination of the CFTR channel density, and consequently, of the cAMP-stimulated chloride conductance of the plasma membrane.

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