Extracellular vesicles (EVs), such as exosomes, can mediate long-distance communication between cells by delivering biomolecular cargo. It is speculated that EVs undergo back-fusion at multivesicular bodies (MVBs) in recipient cells to release their functional cargo. However, direct evidence is lacking. Tracing the cellular uptake of EVs with high resolution as well as acquiring direct evidence for the release of EV cargo is challenging mainly because of technical limitations.
Here, researchers from the University Medical Center Groningen have developed an analytical methodology, combining state-of-the-art molecular tools and correlative light and electron microscopy, to identify the intracellular site for EV cargo release. GFP was loaded inside EVs through the expression of GFP-CD63, a fusion of GFP to the cytosolic tail of CD63, in EV producer cells. In addition, they genetically engineered a cell line which expresses anti-GFP fluobody that specifically recognizes the EV cargo (GFP). Incubation of anti-GFP fluobody-expressing cells with GFP-CD63 EVs resulted in the formation of fluobody punctae, designating cytosolic exposure of GFP. Endosomal damage was not observed in EV acceptor cells. Ultrastructural analysis of the underlying structures at GFP/fluobody double-positive punctae demonstrated that EV cargo release occurs from endosomes/lysosomes. Finally, the researchers show that neutralization of endosomal pH and cholesterol accumulation in endosomes leads to blockage of EV cargo exposure. In conclusion, they report that a fraction of internalized EVs fuse with the limiting membrane of endosomes/lysosomes in an acidification-dependent manner, which results in EV cargo exposure to the cell cytosol.