The assembly and permanent sealing of tight junctions (TJs) depend crucially on cell-cell contacts containing E-cadherin. This poses a puzzling problem because, while TJs can be established between epithelial cells from different tissues and even different animal species ("heterotypic TJs"; Gonzalez-Mariscal et al. 1989, J Membr Biol 107:43), the cell-cell binding mediated by E-cadherin is a highly specific one (Takeichi 1995, Curr Opin Cell Biol 7:619). Yet the demonstration that TJs can be established at heterotypic borders is open to two distinct challenges. First, it is based on transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) and restriction to ruthenium red permeation only, which today are known to be just two of the many characteristics of TJs; and second some attributes of the TJs (e.g. the presence of specific molecules) have been found even in cells that do not establish these structures. This raised the question of whether heterotypic TJs were not true or full TJs. In the present work we demonstrate that heterotypic TJs in mixed monolayers of MDCK cells with a different cell type (LLC-PK1) are true TJs through several criteria, such as TER, the ability to stop the membrane diffusion of fluorescent sphingomyelin from the apical to the lateral domain, the presence of ZO-1, ZO-2, occludin, claudin-1 and claudin-2. We then turn to the presence of E-cadherin at heterotypic borders, and observe that it cannot be detected by the highly specific DECMA-1 antibody, in spite of the fact that this antibody does reveal the presence of E-cadherin at homotypic contacts of the same cell. Yet, ECCD-2, an antibody against another domain of E-cadherin, reveals that this molecule may be present at both types of borders. Thus, E-cadherin is present at heterotypic borders, yet it seems to be in a conformation unable to bind DECMA-1. Our results suggest: (1) that heterotypic borders can establish fully developed TJs; (2) that the sealing of these heterotypic TJs depends on E-cadherin; (3) but that this dependence is mediated through a cascade of chemical reactions involving two different G-proteins, PLC, PKC and calmodulin, which we have characterized elsewhere (Balda et al. 1991, J Membr Biol 122:193); and (4) hence molecules of E-cadherin that trigger junction formation can act from a distant homotypic contact.