In some epithelia, mucosal exposure to osmotic loads produces an increase in transepithelial resistance that is presumed to relate to the collapse of the paracellular spaces. Since proximal small intestinal epithelium may transiently encounter osmotic loads during normal digestion, we examined the short-term effect of osmotic loads on resistance and on epithelial structure of mucosal sheets prepared from guinea pig jejunum using Ussing-chamber, thin-section electron-microscopic, and freeze-fracture techniques. After equilibration of mucosal sheets in chambers, mucosal buffer tonicity was increased to 600 mosM with mannitol. This resulted in a 64% increase in resistance within 20 min. Concomitantly, 600 mosM produced a decrease in tight-junction cation selectivity as judged from dilution potentials, collapse of paracellular spaces, decreased cytoplasmic electron density in 10-40% of absorptive cells, and focal absorptive-cell subjunctional lateral-membrane evaginations often associated with microfilament arrays. Freeze-fracture replicas of absorptive-cell tight junctions revealed significant increases in both strand count and depth. Preincubation with 5 micrograms/ml cytochalasin D reduced the 600 mosM resistance increase caused by 600 mosM exposure by 48% but did not prevent the collapse of paracellular spaces. Lowered temperatures that produced morphologic evidence consistent with a gel-phase transition of absorptive-cell lateral membranes prevented both the resistance response and the alterations in tight-junction structure. In conclusion, transient osmotic loads produce an increase in resistance in jejunal epithelium and alter both absorptive-cell tight-junction charge selectivity and structure. These responses, which may have physiologic implications, can be reduced by cytoskeletal inhibitors and ablated by conditions that restrict mobility of absorptive-cell lateral-membrane molecules.

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