Three Types of Gap Junctions Interconnecting Intestinal Epithelial Cells Visualized by Freeze-Etching
Gap junctions are specialized membrane regions that seem to mediate intercellular communication. They appear to contain closely packed arrays of equally sized particles all of which, upon freeze-cleaving, remain attached to one membrane leaflet and not to the other. One gap junction cleavage face, therefore, always exhibits a closely packed array of particles, while the other features a corresponding array of pits. By using these morphological criteria, we have been able to distinguish three different types of gap junctions interlinking adjacent epithelial cells of the small intestine. All three types may be found in close proximity to each other, and in all cases, the particles remain attached to the cleavage face of the cytoplasmic membrane leaflet (A-face). The most frequently encountered type-I gap junctions, which have already been observed in many other tissues, possess 8- to 9-nm (80- to 90-Å) particles with a center-to-center spacing of 9-10 nm (90-100 Å) when packed in a hexagonal lattice. Type-II gap junctions are always found in close association with type-I junctions. They can be distinguished from the type-I junctions by the greater size [10-11 nm (100-110 Å) in diameter] and the greater spacing (190-200 Å) of their hexagonally arrayed particles. In contrast, the particles of the type-III gap junctions are arranged in very small rectilinear arrays with a spacing of only 6-8 nm (60-80 Å). Gap junctions may be involved in the control of intercellular flow of different types of regulatory molecules.