Pseudomonas exotoxin (PE) is a cytotoxin which, after endocytosis, is delivered to the cytosol where it inactivates protein synthesis. Using diaminobenzidine cytochemistry, we found over 94% of internalized PE in transferrin (Tf) -positive endosomes of lymphocytes. When PE translocation was examined in a cell-free assay using purified endocytic vesicles, more than 40% of endosomal 125I-labeled PE was transported after 2 h at 37 degrees C, whereas a toxin inactivated by point mutation in its translocation domain was not translocated. Sorting of endosomes did not allow cell-free PE translocation, whereas active PE transmembrane transport was observed after > 10 min of endocytosis when PE and fluorescent-Tf were localized by confocal immunofluorescence microscopy within a rab5-positive and rab4- and rab7-negative recycling compartment in the pericentriolar region of the cell. Accordingly, when PE delivery to this structure was inhibited using a 20 degrees C endocytosis temperature, subsequent translocation from purified endosomes was impaired. Translocation was also inhibited when endosomes were obtained from cells labeled with PE in the presence of brefeldin A, which caused fusion of translocation-competent recycling endosomes with translocation-incompetent sorting elements. No PE processing was observed in lymphocyte endosomes, the full-sized toxin was translocated and recovered in an enzymatically active form. ATP hydrolysis was found to directly provide the energy required for PE translocation. Inhibitors of endosome acidification (weak bases, protonophores, or bafilomycin A1) when added to the assay did not significantly affect 125I-labeled PE translocation, demonstrating that this transport is independent of the endosome-cytosol pH gradient. Nevertheless, when 125I-labeled PE endocytosis was performed in the presence of one of these molecules, translocation from endosomes was strongly inhibited, indicating that exposure to acidic pH is a prerequisite for PE membrane traversal. When applied during endocytosis, treatments that protect cells against PE intoxication (low temperatures, inhibitors of endosome acidification, and brefeldin A) impaired 125I-labeled PE translocation from purified endosomes. We conclude that PE translocation from a late receptor recycling compartment is implicated in the lymphocyte intoxication procedure.