Bovine seminal RNase (BS-RNase) is a dimeric RNase selectively cytotoxic for malignant cells. No information is available on its pathway from the extracellular matrix through the cytosol, where it degrades rRNA. An investigation of this pathway is reported here, carried out by immunofluorescence studies, by assessing the effects on BS-RNase cytotoxicity of drugs that affect specific intracellular compartments and by assaying the behaviour of a protein variant, BS-RNase-KDEL (BS-RNase in which a Lys-Asp-Glu-Leu peptide segment is inserted at the C-terminal ends of the subunit chains), endowed with a consensus sequence that directs proteins to the endoplasmic reticulum. BS-RNase was found to bind both normal and malignant cells and to be internalized by both cell types in endosome vesicles. Non-cytotoxic RNases, such as RNase A and a monomeric derivative of BS-RNase, did not bind to the cell surface and were not internalized. However, an engineered, dimeric and cytotoxic variant of RNase A bound effectively and permeated cells. The results of immunofluorescence studies, the effects of nigericin, monensin and brefeldin A on the cytotoxic action of seminal RNase, and the behaviour of the BS-RNase-KDEL variant, led to the conclusion that the pathway of BS-RNase in malignant cells from the extracellular matrix to the cytosol has two essential intracellular stations: endosomes and the trans-Golgi network. In normal cells, however, the protein does not progress from the endosomal compartment to the Golgi complex.

Abbreviations used: BS-RNase, bovine seminal RNase; BS-RNase-KDEL, BS-RNase in which a Lys-Asp-Glu-Leu peptide segment is inserted at the C-terminal ends of the subunit chains; BFA, brefeldin A; ECM, extracellular matrix; ER, endoplasmic reticulum; TGN, trans-Golgi network; DMEM, Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium; MCM-BS-RNase, catalytically active monomeric derivative of BS-RNase; PLCC-AA-RNase, a dimeric variant of RNase A ([A19P,Q28L, K31C,S32C]RNase A); A19P, Ala19 → Pro etc.; FRTL-5, a Fischer-rat thyroid cell line; TK-6, Fischer-rat thyroid tumour cells derived from a rat thyroid follicular carcinoma; MPTK-6, a cell line derived from Fischer rat lung metastases of the TK-6 tumour.

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Author notes

1

This paper is dedicated to the memory of Mariarosaria Mastronicola, who died suddenly in September 2000.

2

Deceased.