Receptor-mediated endocytosis: the intracellular journey of transferrin and its receptor

Biochimie. 1986 Mar;68(3):375-81. doi: 10.1016/s0300-9084(86)80004-9.


A variety of ligands and macromolecules enter cells by receptor-mediated endocytosis. Ligands bind to their receptors on the cell surface and ligand-receptor complexes are localized in specialized regions of the plasma membrane called coated pits. Coated pits invaginate and give rise to intracellular coated vesicles containing ligand-receptor complexes which are thus internalized. Transferrin, a major serum glycoprotein which transports iron into cells, enters cells by this pathway. It binds to its receptor on the cell surface, transferrin-receptor complexes cluster in coated pits and are internalized in coated vesicles. Coated vesicles then lose their clathrin coat and fuse with endosomes, an organelle with an internal pH of about 5-5.5. Most ligands dissociate from their receptors in endosomes and they finally end up in lysosomes where they are degraded, while their receptors remain bound to membrane structures and recycle to the cell surface. Transferrin has a different fate: in endosomes iron dissociates from transferrin but apotransferrin remains bound to its receptor because of its high affinity for the receptor at acid pH. Apotransferrin thus recycles back to the plasma membrane still bound to its receptor. When the ligand-receptor complex reaches the plasma membrane or a compartment at neutral pH, apotransferrin dissociates from its receptor with a half-life of 18 s because of its low affinity for its receptor at neutral pH. The receptor is then ready for a new cycle of internalization, while apotransferrin enters the circulation, reloads iron in the appropriate organs and is ready for a new cycle of iron transport.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoproteins*
  • Biological Transport
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Clathrin / physiology
  • Coated Pits, Cell-Membrane / physiology
  • Endocytosis*
  • Endosomes / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Lysosomes / physiology
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Molecular Weight
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / physiology*
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin / metabolism*


  • Apoproteins
  • Clathrin
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • apotransferrin
  • Iron