The cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) chloride channel is found at the apical region of exocrine epithelial cells, both at the cell surface and in an apically localized intracellular compartment. To determine if this internal pool was due to endocytosis, a technique was developed that allows the rate of CFTR internalization from the cell surface to be monitored. A two-step periodate/hydrazide biotinylation procedure was used to derivatize cell surface glycoconjugates. Because both of these steps are required for derivatization and are conducted at 4 degrees C, the inclusion of a 37 degrees C incubation between the treatments resulted in an assay for the internalization of cell surface glycoconjugates. CFTR was found to be targeted to a rapidly recycling endocytic pathway, as approximately 50% of cell surface CFTR was internalized within minutes and unavailable for biotinylation. In contrast, the major glycoproteins of the apical surface were not significantly endocytosed during even longer incubations at 37 degrees C. Elevating cAMP levels either by forskolin or cAMP analogs, which has been shown to activate CFTR chloride channel activity, inhibited CFTR internalization. However, cAMP did not affect the internalization of G551D CFTR, a naturally occurring Gly-551-->Asp mutant that is expressed at the cell surface but lacks normal ion-channel function. In addition, the inhibition by cAMP of CFTR was not observed when cells were depleted of cellular chloride. The presence of CFTR in epithelial cells had previously been shown to confer a cAMP-mediated inhibition on the rate of fluid-phase endocytosis. This effect was not seen in chloride-depleted cells, suggesting that CFTR's ion-channel function and localization to incipient endosomes may be responsible for the observed inhibition. The finding that CFTR is targeted to the endocytic pathway may provide insight into the role of CFTR in normal exocrine function. In addition, these findings suggest that the expression of a regulated ion channel in a membranous subcellular compartment provides a mechanism by which a cell can regulate vesicular trafficking through that compartment.