Cell-cell adhesion is at the top of a molecular cascade of protein interactions that leads to the remodeling of epithelial cell structure and function. The earliest events that initiate this cascade are poorly understood. Using high resolution differential interference contrast microscopy and retrospective immunohistochemistry, we observed that cell-cell contact in MDCK epithelial cells consists of distinct stages that correlate with specific changes in the interaction of E-cadherin with the cytoskeleton. We show that formation of a stable contact is preceded by numerous, transient contacts. During this time and immediately following formation of a stable contact, there are no detectable changes in the distribution, relative amount, or Triton X-100 insolubility of E-cadherin at the contact. After a lag period of approximately 10 min, there is a rapid acquisition of Triton X-100 insolubility of E-cadherin localized to the stable contact. Significantly, the total amount of E-cadherin at the contact remains unchanged during this time. The increase in the Triton X-100 insoluble pool of E-cadherin does not correlate with changes in the distribution of actin or fodrin, suggesting that the acquisition of the Triton X-100 insolubility is due to changes in E-cadherin itself, or closely associated proteins such as the catenins. The 10 minute lag period, and subsequent prompt and localized nature of E-cadherin reorganization indicate a form of signaling is occurring.

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