The human reduced folate carrier (hRFC) mediates the transport of reduced folates and classical anti-folates into mammalian cells. Whereas the functionally important domains in hRFC are poorly characterized, previous studies with anti-folate-resistant cells suggest critical roles for transmembrane domain (TMD) 1 and residues (Gly44, Glu45, Ser46 and Ile48) in or flanking this region. An hRFC mutant devoid of cysteine residues was prepared by deleting the C-terminal 56 amino acids, including four cysteine residues, and mutagenizing the remaining cysteine residues to serine residues. A fully functional cysteine-less hRFC protein was expressed in transport-impaired MtxRIIOuaR2-4 Chinese-hamster ovary cells. To explore the role of residues in or flanking TMD1 in transport, all 24 amino acids from Trp25 to Ile48 of hRFC were mutated individually to cysteine residues, and the mutant hRFCs were transfected into MtxRIIOuaR2-4 cells. All of the 24 cysteine mutants were expressed and, with the exception of R42C (Arg42→Cys), were capable of mediating methotrexate uptake above the low level in MtxRIIOuaR2-4 cells. We found that by treating the transfected cells with the small, water-soluble, thiol-reactive anionic reagent, sodium (2-sulphonatoethyl) methanethiosulphonate, methotrexate transport by several of the cysteine-substituted hRFC mutants was significantly inhibited, including Q40C, G44C, E45C and I48C. Sodium (2-sulphonatoethyl) methanethiosulphonate transport inhibition of the Q40C, G44C and I48C mutants was protected by leucovorin [(6R,S)-5-formyltetrahydrofolate], indicating that these residues lie at or near a substrate-binding site. Using surface-labelling reagents [N-biotinylaminoethyl methanethiosulphonate and 3-(N-maleimidylpropionyl)biocytin, combined with 4-acetamido-4′-maleimidylstilbene-2,2′-disulphonic acid] with cysteine mutants from positions 37–48, the extracellular TMD1 boundary was found to lie between residues 39 and 40, and amino acids 44–46 and 48 were localized to the TMD1 exofacial loop. Collectively, our results imply that amino acids 40, 44, 48 and, possibly, 42 serve important roles in hRFC transport, albeit not as structural components of the putative transmembrane channel for folate substrates.

Abbreviations used: biotin maleimide, 3-(N-maleimidylpropionyl)biocytin; CHO, Chinese-hamster ovary; RFC, reduced folate carrier; hRFC, human RFC; leucovorin, (6R,S)-5-formyltetrahydrofolate; MTS, methanethiosulphonate; MTSEA, 2-aminoethyl methanethiosulphonate hydrobromide; MTSEA-biotin, N-biotinylaminoethyl methanethiosulphonate; MTSES, sodium (2-sulphonatoethyl) methanethiosulphonate; MTSET, 2-(trimethylammonium)ethyl methanethiosulphonate bromide; Mtx, methotrexate; stilbenedisulphonate maleimide, 4-acetamido-4′-maleimidylstilbene-2,2′-disulphonic acid; TMD, transmembrane domain; for brevity the one-letter system for amino acids has been used: R42C, for example, means Arg42→Cys.

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