Gap junctions are collections of intercellular channels composed of structural proteins called connexins (Cx). We have examined the functional interactions of the three rodent connexins present in the lens, Cx43, Cx46, and Cx50, by expressing them in paired Xenopus oocytes. Homotypic channels containing Cx43, Cx46, or Cx50 all developed high conductance. heterotypic channels composed of Cx46 paired with either Cx43 or Cx50 were also well coupled, whereas Cx50 did not form functional channels with Cx43. We also examined the functional response of homotypic and heterotypic channels to transjunctional voltage and cytoplasmic acidification. We show that all lens connexins exhibited sensitivity to cytoplasmic acidification as well as to voltage, and that voltage-dependent closure of heterotypic channels for a given connexin was dramatically influenced by its partner connexins in the adjacent cell. Based on the observation that Cx43 can discriminate between Cx46 and Cx50, we investigated the molecular determinants that specify compatibility by constructing chimeric connexins from portions of Cx46 and Cx50 and testing them for their ability to form channels with Cx43. When the second extracellular (E2) domain in Cx46 was replaced with the E2 of Cx50, the resulting chimera could no longer form heterotypic channels with Cx43. A reciprocal chimera, where the E2 of Cx46 was inserted into Cx50, acquired the ability to functionally interact with Cx43. Together, these results demonstrate that formation of intercellular channels is a selective process dependent on the identity of the connexins expressed in adjacent cells, and that the second extracellular domain is a determinant of heterotypic compatibility between connexins.

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