We previously identified and characterized ZO-1 as a peripheral membrane protein specifically associated with the cytoplasmic surface of tight junctions. Here we describe the identification of partial cDNA sequences encoding rat and human ZO-1 and their use to study the assembly of tight junctions in the Caco-2 human intestinal epithelial cell line. A rat cDNA was isolated from a lambda-gtll expression library by screening with mAbs. Polyclonal antibodies were raised to cDNA-encoded fusion protein; several properties of these antibodies support this cDNA as encoding ZO-1. Expression of ZO-1 mRNA occurs in the rat and Caco-2 cells with a major transcript of approximately 7.5 kb. To disrupt tight junctions and study the subsequent process of assembly, Caco-2 cells were grown in suspension for 48 h in Ca++/Mg++-free spinner medium during which time they lose cell-cell contacts, become round, and by immunofluorescence microscopy show diffuse and speckled localization of ZO-1. Within hours of replating at confluent density in Ca++/Mg++-containing media, attached cells show discrete localization of ZO-1 at cell-cell contacts. Within 2 d, fully confluent monolayers form, and ZO-1 localizes in a continuous gasket-like fashion circumscribing all cells. ZO-1 mRNA levels are highest in cells in spinner culture, and upon replating rapidly fall and plateau at approximately 10% of initial levels after 2-3 wk in culture. ZO-1 protein levels are lowest in contact-free cells and rise five- to eightfold over the same period. In contrast, mRNA levels for sucrase-isomaltase, an apical membrane hydrolase, increase only after a confluent monolayer forms. Thus, in this model of contact-dependent assembly of the tight junction, there is both a rapid assembly beginning upon cell-cell contact, as well as a long-term modulation involving changes in expression of ZO-1 mRNA and protein levels.

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