The glycosphingolipid GM1 binds cholera toxin (CT) on host cells and carries it retrograde from the plasma membrane (PM) through endosomes, the trans-Golgi (TGN), and the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) to induce toxicity. To elucidate how a membrane lipid can specify trafficking in these pathways, we synthesized GM1 isoforms with alternate ceramide domains and imaged their trafficking in live cells. Only GM1 with unsaturated acyl chains sorted efficiently from PM to TGN and ER. Toxin binding, which effectively crosslinks GM1 lipids, was dispensable, but membrane cholesterol and the lipid raft-associated proteins actin and flotillin were required. The results implicate a protein-dependent mechanism of lipid sorting by ceramide structure and provide a molecular explanation for the diversity and specificity of retrograde trafficking by CT in host cells.
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