The apical cytoplasm of epithelial cells of the small and large intestines has been examined by freeze-etch techniques as well as conventional and high voltage electron microscopy of sectioned material to gain a better understanding of the fine structural organization of the terminal web region. In the small intestine the terminal web exhibits a distinct stratification caused by the association of different sets of filaments with the three members of the junctional complex. Individual filaments of this network are closely associated with the sealing elements of the tight junctions, the surface of the core microfilament bundles, and the intermicrovillar plasma membrane. This region of the terminal web is the apical zone. The adherens zone appears as a band of interwoven filaments of two different diameters extending across the cytoplasm at the level of the intermediate junction. Within this region of the terminal web, individual 60-70 A actin-like filaments separate from the bundles of core microfilaments to interact with one another and with filaments of similar diameter from the zonula adherens. 100 A tonofilaments also contribute to the adherens zone, presumably stabilizing the orientation of the actin-like filaments. The basal zone which underlies the adherens zone consists of closely interwoven bundles of tonofilaments that are anchored to and interconnect the spot desmosomes. Within the large intestine the cytoplasmic microfilaments form a looser and less clearly stratified network which nevertheless retains the same basic organization found in the small intestine. Transmembrane linkers appear to originate within the cytoplasmic plaques of the spot desmosomes, pass through the plasma membranes, and meet in a staggered configuration in the intercellular space; these linkers may thus mediate the actual mechanical coupling between the cytoskeletal networks of tonofilament bundles of adjacent cells. This integrated system of cytoplasmic filaments and intercellular junctions endows the apical cytoplasm with both the flexibility and the stability necessary for the normal functioning of the epithelium.

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