Various species of teleostean fishes were adapted to fresh or salt water and their gill surface epithelium was examined using several techniques of electron microscopy. In both fresh and salt water the branchial epithelium is mostly covered by flat respiratory cells. They are characterized by unusual outer membrane fracture faces containing intramembranous particles and pits in various stages of ordered aggregation. Freeze fracture studies showed that the tight junctions between respiratory cells are made of several interconnecting strands, probably representing high resistance junctions. The organization of intramembranous elements and the morphological characteristics of the junctions do not vary in relation to the external salinity. Towards the base of the secondary gill lamellae, the layer of respiratory cells is interrupted by mitochondria-rich cells ("chloride cells"), also linked to respiratory cells by multistranded junctions. There is a fundamental reorganization of the chloride cells associated with salt water adaptation. In salt water young adjacent chloride cells send interdigitations into preexisting chloride cells. The apex of the seawater chloride cell is therefore part of a mosaic of sister cells linked to surrounding respiratory cells by multistranded junctions. The chloride cells are linked to each other by shallow junctions made of only one strand and permeable to lanthanum. It is therefore suggested that salt water adaptation triggers a cellular reorganization of the epithelium in such a way that leaky junctions (a low resistance pathway) appear at the apex of the chloride cells. Chloride cells are characterized by an extensive tubular reticulum which is an extension of the basolateral plasma membrane. It is made of repeating units and is the site of numerous ion pumps. The presence of shallow junctions in sea water-adapted fish makes it possible for the reticulum to contact the external milieu. In contrast in the freshwater-adapted fish the chloride cell's tubular reticulum is separated by deep apical junctions from the external environment. Based on these observations we discuss how solutes could transfer across the epithelium.

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