Ischemic epithelial cells are characterized by disruption of intercellular junctions and loss of apical-basolateral protein polarity, which are normally dependent on the integrity of the adherens junction (AJ). Biochemical analysis of both whole ischemic kidneys and ATP-depleted Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells demonstrated a striking loss of E-cadherin (the transmembrane protein of the AJ) with the appearance and accumulation of an approximately 80-kDa fragment reactive with anti-E-cadherin antibodies on Western blots of ATP-depleted MDCK cells. This apparent ischemia-induced degradation of E-cadherin was not blocked by either inhibitors of the major proteolytic pathways (i.e., proteasome, lysosome, or calpain), or by chelation of intracellular calcium, suggesting the involvement of a protease capable of functioning at low ATP and low calcium levels. Immunocytochemistry revealed the movement of several proteins normally comprising the AJ, including E-cadherin and beta-catenin, away from lateral portions of the plasma membrane to intracellular sites. Moreover, rate-zonal centrifugation and immunoprecipitation with anti-E-cadherin and anti-beta-catenin antibodies indicated that ATP depletion disrupted normal E-cadherin-catenin interactions, resulting in the dissociation of alpha- and gamma-catenin from E-cadherin and beta-catenin-containing complexes. Because the generation and maintenance of polarized epithelial cells are dependent upon E-cadherin-mediated cell-cell adhesion and normal AJ function, we propose that the rapid degradation of E-cadherin and dissolution of the AJ is a key step in the development of the ischemic epithelial cell phenotype. Furthermore, we hypothesize that the reassembly of the AJ after ischemia/ATP depletion may require a novel bioassembly mechanism involving recombination of newly synthesized and sorted E-cadherin with preexisting pools of catenins that have (temporally) redistributed intracellularly.