The major route for endocytosis in most cells, and the best-understood, is that mediated by the molecule clathrin. This large protein assists in the formation of a coated pit on the inner surface of the plasma membrane of the cell. This pit then buds into the cell to form a coated vesicle in the cytoplasm of the cell. In so doing, it brings into the cell not only a small area of the surface of the cell but also a small volume of fluid from outside the cell.
Coats function to deform the donor membrane to produce a vesicle, and they also function in the selection of the vesicle cargo. Coat complexes have been well characterized so far including: coat protein-I (COP-I), COP-II, and clathrin. Clathrin coats are involved in two crucial transport steps: (i) receptor-mediated and fluid-phase endocytosis from the plasma membrane to early endosome and (ii) transport from the TGN to endosomes. In endocytosis, the clathrin coat is assembled on the cytoplasmic face of the plasma membrane, forming pits that invaginate to pinch off (scission) and become free CCVs. In cultured cells, the assembly of a CCV takes ~ 1min, and several hundred to a thousand or more can form every minute. The main scaffold component of clathrin coat is the 190 kD protein called clathrin heavy chain (CHC) and the 25 kD protein called clathrin light chain (CLC), which form three-legged trimers, called triskelions.
Vesicles selectively concentrate and exclude certain proteins during formation and are not representative of the membrane as a whole. AP2 adaptors are multisubunit complexes that perform this function at the plasma membrane. The best-understood receptors that are found concentrated in coated vesicles of mammalian cells are the LDL receptor (which removes LDL from circulating blood), the transferrin receptor (which brings ferric ions bound by transferrin into the cell) and certain hormone receptors (such as that for EGF).
At any one moment, about 25% of the plasma membrane of a fibroblast is made up of coated pits. As a coated pit has a life of about a minute before it buds into the cell, a fibroblast takes up its surface by this route about once every 16 minutes. Coated vesicles formed from the plasma membrane have a diameter of about 36 nm and a lifetime measured in a few seconds. Once the coat has been shed, the remaining vesicle fuses with endosomes and proceeds down the endocytic pathway. The actual budding-in process, whereby a pit is converted to a vesicle, is carried out by clathrin assisted by a set of cytoplasmic proteins, which includes dynamin and adaptors such as adaptin.
Coated pits and vesicles were first seen in thin sections of tissue in the electron microscope by Matt Lions and Parker George. The importance of them for the clearance of LDL from blood was discovered by R. G Anderson, Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein in 1976. Coated vesicles were first purified by Barbara Pearse, who discovered the clathrin coat molecule.
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