The effect of temperature on secretory protein transport was studied by cell fractionation of rat pancreatic lobules, pulse-labeled in vitro with [35S]methionine and chased for 60 min at 16, 20, or 37 degrees C. Chase at 37 degrees C allowed secretory proteins to reach a zymogen granule fraction, whereas chase at 16 or 20 degrees C led to their extensive retention in a total microsomal fraction. To pinpoint the sites of transport inhibition, total microsomes were subfractionated by flotation in a sucrose density gradient. Five bands were resolved, of which the heaviest or B1 (density = 1.20 g/ml) consisted primarily of rough microsomes. The lighter fractions, B2 (1.17 g/ml), B3 (1.15 g/ml), and B4 (1.14-1.13 g/ml), consisted primarily of smooth vesicles derived from Golgi elements. B4 had the highest specific activity for galactosyltransferase, a trans Golgi cisternal marker; B2, B3, and B4 are assumed to represent cis, middle, and trans Golgi subcompartments, respectively. At the end of a 2-min pulse, a single peak of labeled proteins colocalized with B1. During subsequent 60-min chases, labeled proteins advanced to B2 at 16 degrees C and to B3 at 20 degrees C. At 37 degrees C the radioactivity remaining in the total microsomal fraction was distributed among four peaks (B1-B4). The results indicate that transport from the endoplasmic reticulum to the Golgi complex is strongly inhibited below 20 degrees C. At 16 degrees C, the bulk of the cohort of labeled secretory proteins is still in the rough endoplasmic reticulum, but its advancing front reaches cis Golgi elements. At 20 degrees C, the front advances to a middle Golgi compartment, and at 37 degrees C most of the cohort (approximately 70%) reaches condensing vacuoles and zymogen granules. It is concluded that transport steps along the endoplasmic reticulum-plasmalemma pathway have distinct temperature requirements.