Cell necrosis in acute experimental pancreatitis is preceded by a redistribution of digestive enzymes into a lysosomal subcellular compartment. We have investigated whether endocytosis from the acinar cell lumen might contribute to this disturbance of intracellular compartmentation. In an animal model of pancreatitis involving pancreatic bile duct ligation in opossums, we have studied in vivo endocytosis of dextran 40 and [14C]dextran 70, cationized ferritin, and horseradish peroxidase from the apical surface of acinar cells before the onset of necrosis. Marker solutions were instilled into the pancreatic duct of anesthetized animals at physiological pressure. Tissue samples obtained at intervals of up to 60 min after instillation of markers were studied by electron microscopy and electron microscope autoradiography. All markers were taken up by acinar cells in control animals and in animals with obstructed pancreatic bile ducts. Markers for membrane-mediated endocytosis (cationated ferritin and horseradish peroxidase) were transported to lysosomes in both groups. In contrast, the fluid-phase tracer dextran was transported to the secretory pathway in controls but to lysosomes after duct ligation. Since dextran and luminally present secretory proteins can be expected to follow the same route after endocytosis, our findings suggest that altered intracellular targeting of endocytosed proteases might be one mechanism by which digestive zymogens reach an intracellular compartment in which premature activation can occur. This phenomenon may be a critical and early event in the pathogenesis of biliary pancreatitis.