Intercellular communication is critical for organismal homeostasis, and defects can contribute to human disease states. Polarized epithelial cells execute distinct signaling agendas via apical and basolateral surfaces to communicate with different cell types. Small extracellular vesicles (sEVs), including exosomes and small microvesicles, represent an understudied form of intercellular communication in polarized cells. Human cholangiocytes, epithelial cells lining bile ducts, were cultured as polarized epithelia in a Transwell system as a model with which to study polarized sEV communication. Characterization of isolated apically and basolaterally released EVs revealed enrichment in sEVs. However, differences in apical and basolateral sEV composition and numbers were observed. Genetic or pharmacological perturbation of cellular machinery involved in the biogenesis of intralumenal vesicles at endosomes (the source of exosomes) revealed general and domain-specific effects on sEV biogenesis/release. Additionally, analyses of signaling revealed distinct profiles of activation depending on sEV population, target cell, and the function of the endosomal sorting complex required for transport (ESCRT)-associated factor ALG-2-interacting protein X (ALIX) within the donor cells. These results support the conclusion that polarized cholangiocytes release distinct sEV pools to mediate communication via their apical and basolateral domains and suggest that defective ESCRT function may contribute to disease states through altered sEV signaling.
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