We previously demonstrated both mannose 6-phosphate receptor (MPR) and cathepsin L in early autophagic vacuoles of cultured rat fibroblasts. This suggested that the enzyme may originate either from the receptor-enriched prelysosomal compartment (PLC) or from the trans-Golgi network (TGN). In the present ultrastructural study, we elucidated the roles of the PLC and TGN in lysosomal enzyme delivery to autophagic vacuoles. Firstly, we studied whether endocytic markers, cationized ferritin (CF), bovine serum albumin-gold or horseradish peroxidase (HRP), can be detected in autophagic vacuoles. Autophagy was induced by serum removal from the medium with or without leupeptin, an inhibitor of cysteine proteinases. Endocytic markers were not detected in autophagic vacuoles after short uptake which filled the early endosome, but only after longer labeling which filled the PLC. The markers were usually found in advanced autophagic vacuoles containing partially degraded cytoplasm and complex internal membranes which are the characteristic of the PLC. HRP-positive vesicles were also observed in continuity with early autophagic vacuoles containing intact cytoplasm. After uptake and transport of CF and HRP to the PLC, these markers were delivered to autophagic vacuoles even if microtubules were disrupted in vinblastine before the induction of autophagy. Secondly, we studied whether MPRs transport cathepsin L to autophagic vacuoles directly from the TGN. Two inhibitors of MPR-mediated enzyme transport, tunicamycin and chloroquine, were used. Quantitative immunocytochemistry showed that neither of these drugs prevented cathepsin L delivery to autophagic vacuoles. The results suggest that a large proportion of lysosomal enzymes is delivered to autophagic vacuoles from the PLC by a microtubule-independent manner. The first enzymes may be transported in small PLC-derived vesicles or tubules which are reached by HRP but not by CF and gold. Later, the autophaged cytoplasm is delivered to larger vacuolar parts of the PLC. Mannose 6-phosphate receptors transport no or only trace amounts of lysosomal enzymes to autophagic vacuoles directly from the TGN.