The binding properties of adhesion proteins are typically quantified from measurements with soluble fragments, under conditions that differ radically from the confined microenvironment of membrane bound proteins in adhesion zones. Using classical cadherin as a model adhesion protein, we tested the postulate that confinement within quasi two-dimensional intercellular gaps exposes weak protein interactions that are not detected in solution binding assays. Micropipette-based measurements of cadherin-mediated, cell-cell binding kinetics identified a unique kinetic signature that reflects both adhesive (trans) bonds between cadherins on opposing cells and lateral (cis) interactions between cadherins on the same cell. In solution, proposed lateral interactions were not detected, even at high cadherin concentrations. Mutations postulated to disrupt lateral cadherin association altered the kinetic signatures, but did not affect the adhesive (trans) binding affinity. Perturbed kinetics further coincided with altered cadherin distributions at junctions, wound healing dynamics, and paracellular permeability. Intercellular binding kinetics thus revealed cadherin interactions that occur within confined, intermembrane gaps but not in solution. Findings further demonstrate the impact of these revealed interactions on the organization and function of intercellular junctions.
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