Background: Connexins are the protein subunits of intercellular gap junction channels. In mammals, they are encoded by a family of at least 15 genes, which show cell-type-specific but overlapping patterns of expression. Mice lacking connexin43 (Cx43) die postnatally from obstruction of the right ventricular outflow tract of the heart. To discriminate between the unique and shared functions of Cx43, Cx40 and Cx32, we generated two 'knock-in' mouse lines, Cx43KI32 and Cx43KI40, in which the coding region of the Cx43 gene was replaced, respectively, by the coding regions of Cx32 or Cx40.
Results: Heterozygous mutants were fertile and co-expressed the wild-type and the corresponding recombinant allele in all tissues analyzed. Heterozygous Cx43KI32, but not Cx43KI40, mutant mothers were unable to nourish their pups to weaning age, possibly reflecting a defect in milk ejection. Homozygous mutant males were sterile because of extensive germ-cell deficiency. The ovaries of homozygous Cx43KI32 neonates exhibited all stages of follicular development and ovulation. The hearts of homozygous Cx43KI32 neonates showed mild morphological defects, but the cardiac morphology of homozygous Cx43KI40 neonates was relatively normal. Spontaneous ventricular arrhythmias were observed in most Cx43KI40 and some Cx43KI32 mutant mice, suggesting increased ventricular vulnerability in these mice.
Conclusions: The postnatal lethality of Cx43-deficient mice was rescued in Cx43KI32 or Cx43KI40 mice, indicating that Cx43, Cx40 and Cx32 share at least some vital functions. On the other hand, Cx43KI32 and Cx43KI40 mice differed functionally and morphologically from each other and from wild-type mice. Thus, these connexins also have unique functions.