Stratified squamous epithelia from 14-day chick embryo shank skin contain rare tight-junctional strands and only small gap junctions. Exposure of this tissue to retinoic acid (vitamin-A) (20 U/ml) in organ culture, however, induces mucous metaplasia, accompanied by tight-junction formation and gap-junction growth; untreated specimens continue to keratinize. To investigate sequential stages of junctional assembly and growth, we examined thin sections and freeze-fracture replicas at daily intervals for 3 days. During the metaplastic process, tight junctions assemble in midepidermal and upper regions, beginning on day 1 and becoming maximal on day 3. Two tight-junctional patterns could be tentatively identified as contributing to the emergence of fully formed zonulae occludentes: (a) the formation of individual ridges along the margins of gap junctions; (b) de novo generation of continuous ramifying strands by fusion of short strand segments and linear particulate aggregates near cellular apices. Gap junction enlargement, already maximal at day 1, occurs primarily three to four cell layers deep. Growth appears to occur by annexation of islands of 20-40 8.5-nm particles into larger lattices of islands separated by particle-free aisles. Eventually, a single gap junction may occupy much of the exposed membrane face in freeze-fractured tissue, but during apical migration of the cells such junctions disappear. The vitamin- A chick-skin system is presented as a responsive model for the controlled study of junction assembly.

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