Receptor-mediated endocytosis is a highly efficient mechanism for cellular uptake of membrane-impermeant ligands. Cells use this process to acquire nutrients, initiate signal transduction, promote development, regulate neurotransmission, and maintain homeostasis. Natural receptors that participate in receptor-mediated endocytosis are structurally diverse, ranging from large transmembrane proteins to small glycolipids embedded in the outer leaflet of cellular plasma membranes. Despite their vast structural differences, these receptors share common features of binding to extracellular ligands, clustering in dynamic membrane regions that pinch off to yield intracellular vesicles, and accumulation of receptor-ligand complexes in membrane-sealed endosomes. Receptors typically dissociate from ligands in endosomes and cycle back to the cell surface, whereas internalized ligands are usually delivered into lysosomes, where they are degraded, but some can escape and penetrate into the cytosol. Here, we review efforts to develop synthetic cell surface receptors, defined as nonnatural compounds, exemplified by mimics of cholesterol, that insert into plasma membranes, bind extracellular ligands including therapeutics, probes, and endogenous proteins, and engage endocytic membrane trafficking pathways. By mimicking natural mechanisms of receptor-mediated endocytosis, synthetic cell surface receptors have the potential to function as prosthetic molecules capable of seamlessly augmenting the endocytic uptake machinery of living mammalian cells. © 2012 Elsevier B.V.
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