The primary structure of the proteolipid protein (PLP) from the central nervous system (CNS) myelin of mammals is highly conserved with only three amino acid differences between the mouse, rat, dog, bovine, and human proteins. Furthermore, within a particular species no polymorphisms in the protein have been identified. Recent interest has focused on the targeting of PLP in oligodendrocytes and the role that mutant forms of this protein play in generating dysmyelinating or hypomyelinating diseases. We previously expressed the human cDNA encoding PLP in transiently transfected Cos-7 cells and characterized the subcellular distribution of the protein in this simple heterologous system. In the current study we have used the same paradigm to examine the effect of five missense mutations in the PLP gene on processing of the encoded protein. The mutations chosen span the carboxy-terminal half of PLP and encompass that part of the protein in which most mutations have been identified. Our results show that transport of all mutations examined was arrested in the secretory pathway at an early stage, causing the mutant proteins to accumulate in the endoplasmic reticulum. Thus, a common mechanism of protein misfolding and failure of PLP to reach the cell surface of oligodendrocytes rather than the inability of the mutant protein to perform some crucial function at the cell surface may be responsible for the diseases caused by many PLP mutations. Our results, together with those of others, prompt us to speculate that the pathobiology observed in PLP mutants may result from oligodendrocyte cell death caused by the accumulation of misfolded protein in the endoplasmic reticulum. This speculation is consistent with the observations that oligodendrocytes bearing misfolded PLP, as in the jimpy mutant, proliferate but die rapidly while oligodendrocytes from PLP deletion survive and produce a myelin-like membrane which lacks PLP.