The epithelia of a number of glands and cavitary organs of the rat and guinea pig have been surveyed, and in all cases investigated, a characteristic tripartite junctional complex has been found between adjacent cells. Although the complex differs in precise arrangement from one organ to another, it has been regularly encountered in the mucosal epithelia of the stomach, intestine, gall bladder, uterus, and oviduct; in the glandular epithelia of the liver, pancreas, parotid, stomach, and thyroid; in the epithelia of pancreatic, hepatic, and salivary ducts; and finally, between the epithelial cells of the nephron (proximal and distal convolution, collecting ducts). The elements of the complex, identified as zonula occludens (tight junction), zonula adhaerens (intermediary junction), and macula adhaerens (desmosome), occupy a juxtaluminal position and succeed each other in the order given in an apical-basal direction.
The zonula occludens (tight junction) is characterized by fusion of the adjacent cell membranes resulting in obliteration of the intercellular space over variable distances. Within the obliterated zone, the dense outer leaflets of the adjoining cell membranes converge to form a single intermediate line. A diffuse band of dense cytoplasmic material is often associated with this junction, but its development varies from one epithelium to another.
The zonula adhaerens (intermediate junction) is characterized by the presence of an intercellular space (∼200 A) occupied by homogeneous, apparently amorphous material of low density; by strict parallelism of the adjoining cell membranes over distances of 0.2 to 0.5 µ; and by conspicuous bands of dense material located in the subjacent cytoplasmic matrix.
The desmosome or macula adhaerens is also characterized by the presence of an intercellular space (∼240 A) which, in this case, contains a central disc of dense material; by discrete cytoplasmic plaques disposed parallel to the inner leaflet of each cell membrane; and by the presence of bundles of cytoplasmic fibrils converging on the plaques.
The zonula occludens appears to form a continuous belt-like attachment, whereas the desmosome is a discontinuous, button-like structure. The zomula adhaerens is continuous in most epithelia but discontinuous in some. Observations made during experimental hemoglobinuria in rats showed that the hemoglobin, which undergoes enough concentration in the nephron lumina to act as an electron-opaque mass tracer, does not penetrate the intercellular spaces beyond the zonula occludens. Similar observations were made in pancreatic acini and ducts where discharged zymogen served as a mass tracer. Hence the tight junction is impervious to concentrated protein solutions and appears to function as a diffusion barrier or "seal." The desmosome and probably also the zonula adhaerens may represent intercellular attachment devices.