We investigated the effects of an inhibitor of sphingolipid biosynthesis, 1-phenyl-2-(decanoyl-amino)-3-morpholino-1-propanol (PDMP), on cells in culture. Two Golgi-associated enzymes were affected by incubation of cells with PDMP. The synthesis of glucosylceramide was inhibited at low concentrations of PDMP (2.5-10 microM), and in the presence of higher concentrations (greater than or equal to 25 microM), synthesis of sphingomyelin was also reduced. Transport of vesicular stomatitis virus G protein through the Golgi complex was progressively retarded by increasing concentrations of PDMP. In the presence of 75 microM PDMP, the half-times of VSV-G protein arrival at the cis, medial, and trans Golgi and the cell surface were increased 1.5-, 2.1-, 2.4-, and 2.8-fold, respectively, compared to control values. Transport of fluorescent sphingolipids, synthesized de novo at the Golgi complex from fluorescent ceramide precursors, to the cell surface was retarded by approximately 20% in the presence of 50 microM PDMP and by approximately 50% in the presence of 100 microM PDMP. Control experiments demonstrated that PDMP had minimal effects on cell morphology and physiology (including microtubule and endoplasmic reticulum structure, mitochondrial function, and endocytosis). Although incubation of cells with relatively high concentrations of PDMP was required to see the effects on protein and sphingolipid transport, use of a fluorescent analogue of PDMP demonstrated that most cell-associated PDMP was sequestered in lysosomes, while the concentration at the Golgi complex, the site of the target synthetic enzymes, was relatively low. Taken together, these results suggest that transport of proteins and sphingolipids through the secretory pathway may be coupled to sphingolipid synthesis.