We investigated whether the folate receptor alpha-isoform (FR alpha), which is overexpressed on ovarian carcinoma cells, is functionally active in internalizing the physiological form et folate, 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate (THF). Six ovarian tumor cell lines, expressing different levels of FR alpha (COR > > OVCAR3 > IGROV1 > OVCAR4 > SKOV3 > OVCAR5), were maintained in folate-depleted medium and internalization of 10 nM evaluated as acid-resistant radioactivity at 0 degree and 37 degrees C. The amount of 5-methyl[1H]THF present in this fraction was not strictly related to the number of membrane receptors, since even cell lines with low FR alpha expression, e.g., OVCAR4, showed efficient internalization. Time-course studies indicated that, whereas no uptake was detected at 0 degree C, at 37 degrees C the internalized fraction showed a slow and constant increase, until 4 h. At this time the internalized radioactivity represented < 50% of the total bound in COR, OVCAR3 and IGROV1 cells, whereas the other cell lines tested internalized fourfold more folate than their surface binding capacity. The incubation in the presence of a concentration (50 nM) of 5-methyl[3H]THF, which best ensures receptors saturation on cells with highest FR levels (COR and OVCAR3), had slight effect on surface binding of all the tested cell lines, including IGROV1 and SKOV3. In contrast, the increase of the uptake was more pronounced, particularly in SKOV3 cells. These results, together with the accumulation curves of folic acid (FA) and 5-methylTHF at 37 degrees C, suggested the presence of a molecule on ovarian carcinoma cells with high affinity for reduced folates, possibly a reduced folate carrier (RFC). Measurement of radioactivity present in the supernatant of IGROV1 and SKOV3 cells, subjected to hypotonic lysis and cell fractionation, further indicated that 5-methyl[3H]THF was translocated to the cytosol and, despite differences in membrane levels of FR alpha expression this internalized fraction was similar in both cell lines. Inhibition experiments to selectively block FR alpha or RFC activity showed a differential sensitivity of the two pathways depending on the cell line examined. Internalization was more consistently inhibited on IGROV1 than on SKOV3 cells by treatments that disrupt FR alpha activity, e.g., incubation with excess FA and phosphatidylinositol specific phospholipase C, whereas Probenecid, which preferentially inhibits the carrier-mediated pathway, showed a strong inhibitory effect on both cell lines. These findings suggest that the internalization of 5-methylTHF in these tumor cells depends not only on the level of overexpressed FR alpha, but another transport route, with features characteristic for RFC, is functional and participates in folate uptake.