Endothelial cell-to-cell junctions: molecular organization and role in vascular homeostasis

Physiol Rev. 2004 Jul;84(3):869-901. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00035.2003.


Intercellular junctions mediate adhesion and communication between adjoining endothelial and epithelial cells. In the endothelium, junctional complexes comprise tight junctions, adherens junctions, and gap junctions. The expression and organization of these complexes depend on the type of vessels and the permeability requirements of perfused organs. Gap junctions are communication structures, which allow the passage of small molecular weight solutes between neighboring cells. Tight junctions serve the major functional purpose of providing a "barrier" and a "fence" within the membrane, by regulating paracellular permeability and maintaining cell polarity. Adherens junctions play an important role in contact inhibition of endothelial cell growth, paracellular permeability to circulating leukocytes and solutes. In addition, they are required for a correct organization of new vessels in angiogenesis. Extensive research in the past decade has identified several molecular components of the tight and adherens junctions, including integral membrane and intracellular proteins. These proteins interact both among themselves and with other molecules. Here, we review the individual molecules of junctions and their complex network of interactions. We also emphasize how the molecular architectures and interactions may represent a mechanistic basis for the function and regulation of junctions, focusing on junction assembly and permeability regulation. Finally, we analyze in vivo studies and highlight information that specifically relates to the role of junctions in vascular endothelial cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adherens Junctions / physiology
  • Animals
  • Blood Vessels / physiology*
  • Endothelium, Vascular / cytology*
  • Endothelium, Vascular / physiology*
  • Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intercellular Junctions / physiology*
  • Tight Junctions / physiology

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