Arrestin-Dependent and -Independent Internalization of G Protein-Coupled Receptors: Methods, Mechanisms, and Implications on Cell Signaling

Mol Pharmacol. 2021 Apr;99(4):242-255. doi: 10.1124/molpharm.120.000192. Epub 2021 Jan 20.


Agonist-induced endocytosis is a key regulatory mechanism for controlling the responsiveness of the cell by changing the density of cell surface receptors. In addition to the role of endocytosis in signal termination, endocytosed G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) have been found to signal from intracellular compartments of the cell. Arrestins are generally believed to be the master regulators of GPCR endocytosis by binding to both phosphorylated receptors and adaptor protein 2 (AP-2) or clathrin, thus recruiting receptors to clathrin-coated pits to facilitate the internalization process. However, many other functions have been described for arrestins that do not relate to their role in terminating signaling. Additionally, there are now more than 30 examples of GPCRs that internalize independently of arrestins. Here we review the methods, pharmacological tools, and cellular backgrounds used to determine the role of arrestins in receptor internalization, highlighting their advantages and caveats. We also summarize key examples of arrestin-independent GPCR endocytosis in the literature and their suggested alternative endocytosis pathway (e.g., the caveolae-dependent and fast endophilin-mediated endocytosis pathways). Finally, we consider the possible function of arrestins recruited to GPCRs that are endocytosed independently of arrestins, including the catalytic arrestin activation paradigm. Technological improvements in recent years have advanced the field further, and, combined with the important implications of endocytosis on drug responses, this makes endocytosis an obvious parameter to include in molecular pharmacological characterization of ligand-GPCR interactions. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) endocytosis is an important means to terminate receptor signaling, and arrestins play a central role in the widely accepted classical paradigm of GPCR endocytosis. In contrast to the canonical arrestin-mediated internalization, an increasing number of GPCRs are found to be endocytosed via alternate pathways, and the process appears more diverse than the previously defined "one pathway fits all."

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arrestin / metabolism*
  • Clathrin / metabolism
  • Endocytosis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Arrestin
  • Clathrin
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled