The structural features of the chloride-secreting opercular epithelium of seawater-adapted killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) were examined by thin-section and freeze-fracture electron microscopy, with particular emphasis on the morphological appearance of occluding junctions. This epithelium is a flat sheet consisting predominantly of groups of mitochondriarich chloride cells with their apices associated to form apical crypts. These multicellular groups are interspersed in an otherwise continuous pavement cell epithelial lining. The epithelium may be mounted in Ussing-type chambers, which allow ready access to mucosal and serosal solutions and measurement of electrocal properties. The mean short-circuit current, potential difference (mucosal-side negative), and DC resistance for 19 opercular epithelia were, respectively, 120.0 +/- 18.2 microA/cm2, 12.3 +/- 1.7 mV, and 132.5 +/- 26.4 omega cm2. Short-circuit current, a direct measure of Cl- transport, was inhibited by ouabain (5 micron) when introduced on the serosal side, but not when applied to the mucosal side alone. Autoradiographic analysis of [3H]-ouabain-binding sites demonstrated that Na+,K+-ATPase was localized exclusively to basolateral membranes of chloride cells; pavement cells were unlabeled. Occluding junctions between adjacent chloride cells were remarkably shallow (20-25 nm), consisting of two parallel and juxtaposed junctional strands. Junctional interactions between pavement cells or between pavement cells and chloride cells were considerably more elaborate, extending 0.3-0.5 micron in depth and consisting of five or more interlocking junctional strands. Chloride cells at the lateral margins of crypts make simple junctional contacts with neighboring chloride cells and extensive junctions with contiguous pavement cells. Accordingly, in this heterogeneous epithelium, only junctions between Na+,K+-ATPase-rich chloride cells are shallow. Apical crypts may serve, therefore, as focal areas of high cation conductivity across the junctional route. This view is consistent with the electrical data showing that transmural resistance across the opercular eptihelium is low, and with recent studies demonstrating that transepithelial Na+ fluxes are passive. The simplicity of these junctions parallels that described recently for secretory cells of avian salt gland (Riddle and Ernst, 1979, J. Membr. Biol., 45:21-35) and elasmobranch rectal gland (Ernst et al., 1979, J. Cell Biol., 83:(2, Pt. 2):83 a[Abstr.]) and lends morphological support to the concept that paracellular ion permeation plays a central role in ouabain-sensitive transepithelial NaCl secretion.

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