The distribution and size of gap junctions (GJ) in the sensory epithelia of the inner ear have been examined in a reptile (gecko), birds (chicken and owl), and mammals (mouse, guinea pig, gerbil, and bat), and the connexin composition of GJs in the mammalian inner ear has been assessed. Freeze fracture revealed a common pattern of GJ distribution in auditory and vestibular sensory epithelia in the different vertebrate classes. In all these tissues, GJs are numerous, often occupying more than 25% of the plasma membrane area of supporting cells and sometimes composed of more than 100,000 channels. Screening for 12 members of the connexin family in the mammalian inner ear by RT-PCR, Western blotting, and immunohistochemistry revealed four connexin isotypes, cx26, cx30, cx31, and cx43, in the cochlea and three, cx26, cx30, and cx43, in the vestibular organs. With antibodies characterised for their specificity, cx26 and cx30 colocalised in supporting cells of the organ of Corti, in the basal cell region of the stria vascularis, and in type 1 fibrocytes of the spiral ligament. No other connexin was detected in these regions. Cx31 was localised among type 2 fibrocytes below the spiral prominence, a region where cx30 was not expressed and cx26 expression appeared to be low. Cx43 was detected only in the region of "tension fibrocytes" lining the inner aspect of the otic capsule. This suggests separate functional compartments in the cochlea. In addition to cx26 and cx30, cx43 was detected in supporting cells of the vestibular sensory epithelia. Where cx26 and cx30 were colocalised, double immunogold labelling of thin sections showed both cx26 and cx30 evenly distributed in individual GJ plaques, a pattern consistent with the presence of heteromeric connexons. Coimmunoprecipitation of cochlear membrane proteins solubilised with a procedure that preserves the oligomeric structure of connexons confirmed the presence of heteromeric cx26/cx30 connexons. Heteromeric cx26/cx30 connexons may be unique to the inner ear, which could be one factor underlying the non-syndromic character of the deafness caused by mutations in cx26.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.