Sterol and lipid trafficking in mammalian cells
The pathways involved in the intracellular transport and distribution of lipids in general, and sterols in particular, are poorly understood. Cholesterol plays a major role in modulating membrane bilayer structure and important cellular functions, including signal transduction and membrane trafficking. Both the overall cholesterol content of a cell, as well as its distribution in specific organellar membranes are stringently regulated. Several diseases, many of which are incurable at present, have been characterized as results of impaired cholesterol transport and/or storage in the cells. Despite their importance, many fundamental aspects of intracellular sterol transport and distribution are not well understood. For instance, the relative roles of vesicular and non-vesicular transport of cholesterol have not yet been fully determined, nor are the non-vesicular transport mechanisms well characterized. Similarly, whether cholesterol is asymmetrically distributed between the two leaflets of biological membranes, and if so, how this asymmetry is maintained, is poorly understood. In this review, we present a summary of the current understanding of these aspects of intracellular trafficking and distribution of lipids, and more specifically, of sterols.