Bafilomycin A(1) (BAF) and concanamycin A (ConcA) are selective inhibitors of the H(+)-ATPases of the vacuolar system. We have examined the effects of these inhibitors on different steps in endocytic pathways in rat hepatocytes, using [(125)I]tyramine-cellobiose-labeled asialoorosomucoid ([(125)I]TC-AOM) and [(125)I]tyramine-cellobiose-labeled bovine serum albumin ([(125)I]TC-BSA) as probes for respectively receptor-mediated endocytosis and pinocytosis (here defined as fluid phase endocytosis). The effects of BAF and ConcA were in principle identical, although ConcA was more effective than BAF. The main findings were as follows. (1) BAF/ConcA reduced the rate of uptake of both [(125)I]TC-AOM and [(125)I]TC-BSA. The reduced uptake of [(125)I]TC-AOM was partly due to a redistribution of the asialoglycoprotein receptors (ASGPR) such that the number of surface receptors was reduced approximately 40% without a change in the total number of receptors. (2) BAF/ConcA at the same time increased retroendocytosis (recycling) of both probes. The increased recycling of the ligand ([(125)I]TC-AOM) is partly a consequence of the enhanced pH in endosomes, which prevents dissociation of ligand. (3) It was furthermore found that the ligand remained bound to the receptor in presence of BAF/ConcA and that the total amount of ligand molecules internalized in BAF/ConcA-treated cells was only slightly in excess of the total number of receptors. These data indicate that reduced pH in endosomes is the prime cause of receptor inactivation and release of ligand in early endosomes. (4) Subcellular fractionation experiments showed that [(125)I]TC-AOM remained in early endosomes, well separated from lysosomes in sucrose gradients. The fluid phase marker, [(125)I]TC-BSA, on the other hand, seemed to reach a later endosome in the BAF/ConcA-treated cells. This organelle coincided with lysosomes in the gradient, but hypotonic medium was found to selectively release a lysosomal enzyme (beta-acetylglucosaminidase), indicating that even [(125)I]TC-BSA remained in a prelysosomal compartment in the BAF/ConcA-treated cells. (5) Electron microscopy using horseradish peroxidase (HRP) as a fluid phase marker verified that BAF/ConcA inhibited transfer of material from late endosomes ('multivesicular bodies'). (6) BAF/ConcA led to accumulation of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) in autophagic vacuoles, but although the drugs partly inhibited fusion between autophagosomes and lysosomes a number of autolysosomes was formed in the presence of BAF/ConcA. This observation explains the reduced buoyant density of lysosomes (revealed in sucrose density gradients). In conclusion, BAF/ConcA inhibit transfer of endocytosed material from late endosomes to lysosomes, but do not at the same time prevent fusion between autophagosomes and lysosomes.