Gap junctions contain membrane channels that mediate the cell-to-cell movement of ions, metabolites and cell signaling molecules. As gap junctions are comprised of a hexameric array of connexin polypeptides, the expression of a mutant connexin polypeptide may exert a dominant negative effect on gap junctional communication. To examine this possibility, we constructed a connexin 43 (Cx43)/beta-galactosidase (beta-gal) expression vector in which the bacterial beta-gal protein is fused in frame to the carboxy terminus of Cx43. This vector was transfected into NIH3T3 cells, a cell line which is well coupled via gap junctions and expresses high levels of Cx43. Transfectant clones were shown to express the fusion protein by northern and western analysis. X-Gal staining further revealed that all of the fusion protein containing cells also expressed beta-gal enzymatic activity. Double immunostaining with a beta-gal and Cx43 antibody demonstrated that the fusion protein is immunolocalized to the perinuclear region of the cytoplasm and also as punctate spots at regions of cell-cell contact. This pattern is similar to that of Cx43 in the parental 3T3 cells, except that in the fusion protein expressing cells, Cx43 expression was reduced at regions of cell-cell contact. Examination of gap junctional communication (GJC) with dye injection studies further showed that dye coupling was inhibited in the fusion protein expressing cells, with the largest reduction in coupling found in a clone exhibiting little Cx43 localization at regions of cell-cell contact. When the fusion protein expression vector was transfected into the communication poor C6 cell line, abundant fusion protein expression was observed, but unlike the transfected NIH3T3 cells, no fusion protein was detected at the cell surface. Nevertheless, dye coupling was inhibited in these C6 cells. Based on these observations, we propose that the fusion protein may inhibit GJC by sequestering the Cx43 protein intracellularly. Overall, these results demonstrate that the Cx43/beta-gal fusion protein can exert a dominant negative effect on GJC in two different cell types, and suggests that it may serve as a useful approach for probing the biological function of gap junctions.

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