Current structural models of gap junctions indicate two apposed plasma membranes with hexagonally packed hemichannels in each membrane aligning end to end. These channels connect the cytoplasms of contacting cells. Images of isolated rat heart gap junctions have been made with the atomic force microscope in aqueous media. We show that native cardiac gap junctions have a thickness of 25 +/- 0.6 nm. This decreases to 17 nm when they are treated with trypsin, which is known to remove some cytoplasmic components of connexin 43. Imaging shows subunits with a center to center spacing of approximately 9-10 nm and long range hexagonal packing, measurements in agreement with studies using freeze-fracture and negative-stain electron microscopy. In addition to gap junctions, we imaged structures that had all the characteristics of native gap junctions except their thickness was limited to 9-11 nm. They also show long range hexagonal packing and center to center spacing of 9-10 nm. These structures decrease in thickness, to 6-9 nm, when treated with trypsin. We have called these structures hemiplaques. They appear to be present endogenously in the preparation, as we have ruled out their being an artifact of imaging by AFM. However, it remains to be determined if they are a consequence of the procedure used in isolating gap junctions or a possible intermediary in gap junction formation.
- Copyright © 1995 the American Physiological Society