The amyloid beta-protein (A beta) is a proteolytic fragment of the beta-amyloid precursor protein (beta APP). We previously reported the constitutive secretion of A beta peptides from a variety of cells expressing beta APP under normal culture conditions. These endogenously produced A beta peptides have heterogeneous N- and C-termini that vary as a function of beta APP missense mutations. Treatment of A beta-secreting cells with agents that alter intravesicular pH showed that an acidic compartment is required for proper A beta generation. One such compartment appears to be the endosome. Immunolabeling of cell-surface beta APP in living neurons and non-neuronal cells directly demonstrated the endocytosis of the protein and its rapid recycling (within 5-10 minutes) to the cell surface, as well as the trafficking of some beta APP to lysosomes. Expression of beta APP with various deletions of the cytoplasmic domain, including the NPTY motif, leads to decreased internalization and an associated decrease in the production of A beta peptides that begin at the usual asp1 start site. These and other data suggest that A beta production begins with cleavage of beta APP by a still unknown protease(s) (beta-secretase[s]) at the met-asp bond proceeding the A beta N-terminus and that this occurs in part in early endosomes. To characterize the substrate requirements of beta-secretase, beta APP was mutagenized by placing stop codons within or at the end of the transmembrane domain or substituting other amino acids for the wild-type met and asp at the P1 and P1' positions. These experiments showed that proper beta-secretase cleavage requires the precursor to be membrane-anchored and is highly sequence specific; most substitutions at met or asp substantially decrease A beta production. Analogous mutagenesis experiments around the A beta C-terminus revealed that the unknown protease(s) cleaving here ("gamma-secretase[s]") does not show such specificity. Cells secreting A beta may also be useful for examining the critical issue of the aggregation of A beta into its neurotoxic polymeric form under physiological conditions. In this regard, we have found that beta APP-expressing CHO cells show aggregation of > or = 10-20% of their secreted A beta peptides into SDS-stable dimers, trimers and sometimes tetramers under normal culture conditions. The identity of these small multimers was confirmed by extensive immunochemical characterization and radiosequencing. They are present at approximately 100-500 pM levels in conditioned medium of CHO transfectants. Using this endogenous A beta aggregating system, we have begun to examine variables that influence aggregation and compounds which may retard it. In conclusion, studies of the regulation of A beta production and aggregation in cell culture can provide information under physiological conditions that can complement analyses of these processes in vivo.