Some regulated secretory proteins are thought to be targeted to secretory granules through an acidic-dependent aggregation in the trans-Golgi network. In this report we use pancreatic zymogens, a paradigm of regulated proteins, to test this hypothesis, because they qualitatively aggregate upon acidification in vitro. Pig zymogens were found to start to aggregate significantly at pH ∼ 6.0, a pH slightly lower than that at which rat zymogens aggregate, but still compatible with the pH of the cell-sorting compartments. When pig zymogen granule membranes were mixed with the zymogens in the aggregation assay, membranes that normally floated on 1 M sucrose were observed to be pelleted by the aggregating zymogens. Rat membranes were pelleted by pig zymogens and vice versa. Igs, typical constitutively secreted proteins, which needed chemical cross-linking to serve as an aggregated protein control, pelleted membranes almost independently of pH. Corresponding cross-linked zymogen-binding ability and pH dependence was unaffected by the chemical modification. Membranes treated with sodium carbonate, pH 11, or with protease K, were still pelleted by zymogens, suggesting that the aggregated zymogens bound to membrane lipids. This hypothesis was confirmed by the efficient pelleting of unilamellar vesicles composed of granule membrane lipids. Vesicles composed of single classes of phospholipids were also pelleted, but with various efficacies. We conclude that pancreatic zymogen aggregates, formed under the acidic conditions of the secretory pathway sorting compartments, have the capacity to bind firmly to membranes through their phospholipid constituents.

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