Gap junctions are composed of a family of structural proteins called connexins, which oligomerize into intercellular channels and function to exchange low molecular weight metabolites and ions between adjacent cells. We have cloned a new member of the connexin family from lens cDNA, with a predicted molecular mass of 46 kD, called rat connexin46 (Cx46). Since a full-length cDNA corresponding to the 2.8-kb mRNA was not obtained, the stop codon and surrounding sequences were confirmed from rat genomic DNA. The RNA coding for this protein is abundant in lens fibers and detectable in both myocardium and kidney. Western analysis of both rat and bovine lens membrane proteins, using the anti-MP70 monoclonal antibody 6-4-B2-C6 and three anti-peptide antibodies against Cx46 demonstrates that Cx46 and MP70 are different proteins. Immunocytochemistry demonstrates that both proteins are localized in the same lens fiber junctional maculae. Synthesis of Cx46 in either reticulocyte lysate or Xenopus oocytes yields a 46-kD polypeptide; all anti-Cx46 antisera recognize a protein in rat lens membranes 5-10 kD larger, suggesting substantive lenticular posttranslational processing of the native translation product. Oocytes that have synthesized Cx46 depolarize and lyse within 24 h, a phenomenon never observed after expression of rat connexins 32 or 43 (Cx32 and Cx43). Lysis is prevented by osmotically buffering the oocytes with 5% Ficoll. Ficoll-buffered oocytes expressing Cx46 are permeable to Lucifer Yellow but not FITC-labeled BSA, indicating the presence of selective membrane permeabilities. Cx43-expressing oocytes are impermeable to Lucifer Yellow. Voltage-gated whole cell currents are measured in oocytes injected with dilute concentrations of Cx46 but not Cx43 mRNA. These currents are activated at potentials positive to -10 mV. Unlike other connexins expressed in Xenopus oocytes, these results suggest that unprocessed Cx46 induces nonselective channels in the oolemma that are voltage dependent and opened by large depolarizations.

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