All phospholipids in the plasma membrane of eukaryotic cells are subject to a slow passive transbilayer movement. In addition, aminophospholipids are recognized by the so-called aminophospholipid translocase, and are rapidly moved from the exoplasmic to the cytoplasmic leaflet of the plasma membrane at the expense of ATP hydrolysis. Though these principal pathways of transbilayer movement of phospholipids probably apply to all eukaryotic plasma membranes, studies of the actual kinetics of phospholipid redistribution have been largely confined to non-nucleated cells (erythrocytes). Experiments on nucleated cells are complicated by endocytosis and metabolism of the lipid probes inserted into the plasma membrane. Taking these complicating factors into account, we performed a detailed kinetic study of the transbilayer movement of short-chain fluorescent (N-(7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,3-diazol-4-yl); NBD) and, for the first time, spin-labeled analogues of phosphatidylcholine (PC), -ethanolamine (PE), -serine (PS), and sphingomyelin (SM) in the plasma membrane of cultured human gingival fibroblasts. At 20 degrees C, the passive transbilayer diffusion of NBD analogues was very slow, and the choline-containing NBD analogues were internalized predominantly by endocytosis. Spin-labeled analogues of PC and SM showed higher passive transbilayer diffusion rates, and probably entered the cell by both passive transbilayer movement and endocytosis. In contrast, the rapid uptake of NBD- and spin-labeled aminophospholipid analogues could be mainly ascribed to the action of the aminophospholipid translocase, since it was inhibited by ATP depletion and N-ethylmaleimide pretreatment. The initial velocity of NBD-aminophospholipid translocation was eight to ten times slower than that of the corresponding spin-labeled lipid, and the half-times of redistribution of NBD-PS and spin-labeled PS were 7.2 and 3.6 minutes, respectively. Our data indicate that in human fibroblasts the initial velocity of aminophospholipid translocation is at least one order of magnitude higher than that in human erythrocytes, which should be sufficient to maintain the phospholipid asymmetry in the plasma membrane.

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