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J Membr Biol. 1987;95(1):9-20.

Protamine alters structure and conductance of Necturus gallbladder tight junctions without major electrical effects on the apical cell membrane.


Protamine is a naturally occurring basic protein (pI; 9.7 to 12.0). We have recently reported that protamine dissolved in the mucosal bath (2 to 20 microM), induces about a twofold increase in transepithelial resistance in Necturus gallbladder within 10 min. Conductance decreased concomitantly with cation selectivity. In this leaky epithelium, where greater than 90% of an applied current passes between cells, an increment in resistance of this magnitude suggests a paracellular action a priori. To confirm this, ionic conductance across the apical cell membrane was studied with microelectrodes. Protamine increased transepithelial resistance without changing apical cell membrane voltage or fractional membrane resistance. Variation in extracellular K concentration (6 to 50 mM) caused changes in apical membrane voltage not different from control. To determine if protamine-induced resistance changes were associated with structural alteration of tight junctions, gallbladders were fixed in situ at peak response and analyzed by freeze-fracture electron microscopy. According to a morphometrical analysis, the tight junctional intramembranous domain expands vertically due to incorporation of new strands (fibrils) into the main compact fibrillar meshwork. Since morphologic changes are complete within 10 min, strands are probably recycled into and out of the tight junctional membrane domain possibly by the cytoskeleton either from cytoplasmic vesicles or from intramembranous precursors. Regulation of tight junctional permeability by protamine and other perturbations may constitute a common mechanism by which leaky epithelia regulate transport, and protamine, in concentrations employed in this study, seems reasonably specific for the tight junction.

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