Proximal tubular epithelial cells are major sites of homocysteine (Hcy) metabolism and are the primary sites for the accumulation and intoxication of inorganic mercury (Hg(2+)). Previous in vivo data from our laboratory have demonstrated that mercuric conjugates of Hcy are transported into these cells by unknown mechanisms. Recently, we established that the mercuric conjugate of cysteine [2-amino-3-(2-amino-2-carboxy-ethylsulfanylmercuricsulfanyl)propionic acid; Cys-S-Hg-S-Cys], is transported by the luminal, amino acid transporter, system b(0,+). As Cys-S-Hg-S-Cys and the mercuric conjugate of Hcy (2-amino-4-(3-amino-3-carboxy-propylsulfanylmercuricsulfanyl)butyric acid; Hcy-S-Hg-S-Hcy) are similar structurally, we hypothesized that Hcy-S-Hg-S-Hcy is a substrate for system b(0,+).
To test this hypothesis, we analyzed the saturation kinetics, time dependence, temperature dependence, and substrate specificity of Hcy-S-Hg-S-Hcy transport in Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells stably transfected with system b(0,+). MDCK cells are good models in which to study this transport because they do not express system b(0,+). Uptake of Hg(2+) was twofold greater in the transfectants than in wild-type cells. Moreover, the transfectants were more susceptible to the toxic effects of Hcy-S-Hg-S-Hcy than wild-type cells. Accordingly, our data indicate that Hcy-S-Hg-S-Hcy is transported by system b(0,+) and that this transporter likely plays a role in the nephropathy induced after exposure to Hg(2+). These data are the first to implicate a specific, luminal membrane transporter in the uptake and toxicity of mercuric conjugates of Hcy in any epithelial cell.