Intercellular communication via gap junctions, as measured by dye and electrical coupling, disappears within 12 h in primary rat hepatocytes cultured in serum-supplemented media or within 24 h in cells in a serum-free, hormonally defined medium (HDM) designed for hepatocytes. Glucagon and linoleic acid/BSA were the primary factors in the HDM responsible for the extended life span of the electrical coupling. After 24 h of culture, no hormone or growth factor tested could restore the expression of gap junctions. After 4-5 d of culture, the incidence of coupling was undetectable in a serum-supplemented medium and was only 4-5% in HDM alone. However, treatment with glycosaminoglycans or proteoglycans of 24-h cultures, having no detectable gap junction protein, resulted in synthesis of gap junction protein and of reexpression of electrical and dye coupling within 48 h. Most glycosaminoglycans were inactive (heparan sulfates, chondroitin-6 sulfates) or only weakly active (dermatan sulfates, chondroitin 4-sulfates, hyaluronates), the weakly active group increasing the incidence of coupling to 10-30% with the addition of 50-100 micrograms/ml of the factor. Treatment of the cells with 50-100 micrograms/ml of heparins derived from lung or intestine resulted in cells with intermediate levels of coupling (30-50%). By contrast, 10-20 micrograms/ml of chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan, dermatan sulfate proteoglycan, or liver-derived heparin resulted in dye coupling in 80-100% of the cells, with numerous cells showing dye spread from a single injected cell. Sulfated polysaccharides of glucose (dextran sulfates) or of galactose (carrageenans) were inactive or only weakly active except for lambda-carrageenan, which induced up to 70% coupling (albeit no multiple coupling in the cultures). The abundance of mRNA (Northern blots) encoding gap junction protein and the amounts of the 27-kD gap junction polypeptide (Western blots) correlated with the degree of electrical and dye coupling indicating that the active glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans are inducing synthesis and expression of gap junctions. Thus, proteoglycans and glycosaminoglycans, especially those found in abundance in the extracellular matrix of liver cells, are important in the regulation of expression of gap junctions and, thereby, in the regulation of intercellular communication in the liver. The relative potencies of heparins from different tissue sources at inducing gap junction expression are suggestive of functional tissue specificity for these glycosaminoglycans.

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