Plasma membrane sphingomyelin (SM) is known to affect the cellular distribution of cholesterol. The aim of this work was to examine how SM homoeostasis in human skin fibroblasts is affected by alterations in the level of cholesterol in the cell. The cellular cholesterol level was decreased by exposing cells to 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin, and increased by exposing cells to cholesterol–methyl-β-cyclodextrin inclusion complexes. A lowering of the cellular unesterified cholesterol content by 20% was shown to increase the incorporation of [14C]palmitic acid into SM by 70%. Subsequently, the cellular SM mass was shown to be increased (24% increase after a 24 h period). Since l-cycloserine completely abolished the increased incorporation of [14C]palmitic acid into SM in cholesterol-depleted cells, we concluded that the de novo synthesis of the sphingosine backbone of SM was activated in cholesterol-depleted cells. This conclusion was further verified by performing a cell-free assay of serine C-palmitoyltransferase (SPT) in cholesterol-depleted cells, which showed that the activity of the enzyme was increased by 30% after cholesterol depletion. Most of the newly synthesized SM in cholesterol-depleted cells was susceptible to degradation by sphingomyelinase, indicating that it was transported efficiently to the cell surface. Loading of fibroblasts with cholesterol had essentially the opposite effects on SM homoeostasis to those of cholesterol depletion, i.e. 20–30% decreased incorporation of [14C]palmitic acid into SM and decreased activity of SPT. The results of this study show that cellular cholesterol levels have marked effects on the homoeostasis of SM.

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