Uptake of Protein by Mammalian Cells: An Underdeveloped Area

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Science  26 Jan 1968:
Vol. 159, Issue 3813, pp. 390-396
DOI: 10.1126/science.159.3813.390


Although it is accepted on the basis of biological and morphological evidence that mammalian cells will take up macromolecules, little is known about the kinetics, the specificity, and the functions of this uptake. With labeled proteins used as models, it is found that the transport proceeds at very low rates, requires little energy, and is markedly enhanced by polybasic compounds. Molecular charge and size are important factors: cells clearly favor cationic macromolecules of large molecular weights. Neither factor, however, can fully account for the selectivity detected in the uptake of different proteins. Ingested albumin undergoes rapid and extensive degradation. This fact suggests that macromolecules have only a limited chance to express their biological activity in target cells, a finding that is relevant also to the role of foreign nucleic acids and the possibility of achieving genetic transformation in animal cells. There are concrete indications, however, that in spite of their short half-life, proteins can act as carriers, as precursors of active agents, and as regulators of metabolic functions in host cells. They may also be important in the control of growth and differentiation. These functions of exogenous proteins are still largely unexplored.