We observed that the structural organization of early endosomes was significantly modified after cell surface biotinylation followed by incubation in the presence of low concentrations of avidin. Under these conditions early endosomes increased in size to form structures which extended over several micrometers and which had an intra-luminal content with a characteristic electron-dense appearance. The modified early endosomes were not formed when either avidin or biotinylation was omitted, suggesting that they resulted from the cross-linking of internalized biotinylated proteins by avidin. Accumulation of a fluid-phase tracer was increased after the avidin-biotin treatment (145% after 45 min). Both recycling and transport to the late endosomes still occurred, albeit to a somewhat lower extent than in control cells. Quantitative electron microscopy showed that the volume of the endosomal compartment was increased approximately 1.5-fold but that the surface area of the compartment decreased relative to its volume after avidin-biotin treatment. Finally, overexpression of a rab5 mutant, which is known to inhibit early endosome fusion in vitro, prevented the formation of these structures in vivo and caused early endosome fragmentation. Altogether, our data suggest that early endosomes exhibit a high plasticity in vivo. Cross-linking appears to interfere with this dynamic process but does not arrest membrane traffic to/from early endosomes.

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