Despite the importance of trafficking for regulating G protein-coupled receptor signaling, for many members of the seven transmembrane helix protein family, such as odorant receptors, little is known about this process in live cells. Here, the complete life cycle of the human odorant receptor OR17-40 was directly monitored in living cells by ensemble and single-molecule imaging, using a double-labeling strategy. While the overall, intracellular trafficking of the receptor was visualized continuously by using a GFP tag, selective imaging of cell surface receptors was achieved by pulse-labeling an acyl carrier protein tag. We found that OR17-40 efficiently translocated to the plasma membrane only at low expression, whereas at higher biosynthesis the receptor accumulated in intracellular compartments. Receptors in the plasma membrane showed high turnover resulting from constitutive internalization along the clathrin pathway, even in the absence of ligand. Single-molecule microscopy allowed monitoring of the early, dynamic processes in odorant receptor signaling. Although mobile receptors initially diffused either freely or within domains of various sizes, binding of an agonist or an antagonist increased partitioning of receptors into small domains of approximately 190 nm, which likely are precursors of clathrin-coated pits. The binding of a ligand, therefore, resulted in modulation of the continuous, constitutive internalization. After endocytosis, receptors were directed to early endosomes for recycling. This unique mechanism of continuous internalization and recycling of OR17-40 might be instrumental in allowing rapid recovery of odor perception.
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