Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) contain granules that are exocytosed during specific interaction with target cells (TC). In this process, the granule contents, including the lethal protein perforin, as well as granzymes, a family of serine esterases, are delivered to the TC. Information regarding the routing of these proteins towards the granule and their exact localization within the granule is of primary importance to resolve the mechanism of granule-mediated TC killing. In this study, the subcellular localization of perforin, granzymes, and known endosomal and lysosomal marker proteins was determined in human and murine CTL, by immunogold labeling of ultrathin cryosections followed by electron microscopy. Perforin and granzymes can be detected in rough endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi complex, trans-Golgi reticulum, and in all cytotoxic granules. Within the granules, they have a similar distribution and are localized not only in the so-called dense core but also over the region containing small internal vesicles. This finding implies that perforin and granzymes can be released in membrane-enveloped and/or -associated form into the intercellular cleft formed upon CTL-TC interaction. On the basis of the present evidence, additional release of these molecules in soluble form cannot be excluded. The lysosomal membrane glycoproteins lamp-1, lamp-2, and CD63, are abundantly present on the granule-delimiting outer membrane, which becomes incorporated into the CTL plasma membrane during lethal hit delivery. In contrast, the cation-dependent mannose 6-phosphate receptor, known to be present in endosomes and absent from lysosomes, is found only in a minority of the granules. Together with our previous findings that the granules are acidic and connected to the endocytic pathway, these observations define CTL granules as secretory lysosomes.

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