Proteomic and bioinformatic analysis of epithelial tight junction reveals an unexpected cluster of synaptic molecules

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Background: Zonula occludens, also known as the tight junction, is a specialized cell-cell interaction characterized by membrane "kisses" between epithelial cells. A cytoplasmic plaque of ∼100 nm corresponding to a meshwork of densely packed proteins underlies the tight junction membrane domain. Due to its enormous size and difficulties in obtaining a biochemically pure fraction, the molecular composition of the tight junction remains largely unknown. Results: A novel biochemical purification protocol has been developed to isolate tight junction protein complexes from cultured human epithelial cells. After identification of proteins by mass spectroscopy and fingerprint analysis, candidate proteins are scored and assessed individually. A simple algorithm has been devised to incorporate transmembrane domains and protein modification sites for scoring membrane proteins. Using this new scoring system, a total of 912 proteins have been identified. These 912 hits are analyzed using a bioinformatics approach to bin the hits in 4 categories: configuration, molecular function, cellular function, and specialized process. Prominent clusters of proteins related to the cytoskeleton, cell adhesion, and vesicular traffic have been identified. Weaker clusters of proteins associated with cell growth, cell migration, translation, and transcription are also found. However, the strongest clusters belong to synaptic proteins and signaling molecules. Localization studies of key components of synaptic transmission have confirmed the presence of both presynaptic and postsynaptic proteins at the tight junction domain. To correlate proteomics data with structure, the tight junction has been examined using electron microscopy. This has revealed many novel structures including end-on cytoskeletal attachments, vesicles fusing/budding at the tight junction membrane domain, secreted substances encased between the tight junction kisses, endocytosis of tight junction double membranes, satellite Golgi apparatus and associated vesicular structures. A working model of the tight junction consisting of multiple functions and sub-domains has been generated using the proteomics and structural data. Conclusion: This study provides an unbiased proteomics and bioinformatics approach to elucidate novel functions of the tight junction. The approach has revealed an unexpected cluster associating with synaptic function. This surprising finding suggests that the tight junction may be a novel epithelial synapse for cell-cell communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number37
JournalBiology Direct
StatePublished - Dec 8 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Applied Mathematics


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