Atherosclerosis occurs preferentially at vascular curvature and branch sites where the vessel walls are exposed to fluctuating shear stress and have high endothelial permeability. Endothelial permeability is modulated by intercellular adhesion molecules such as VE-cadherin. This study was designed to elucidate the effects of different flow patterns on the localization and expression of VE-cadherin in endothelial cells (ECs) both in vivo and in vitro. VE-cadherin staining at EC borders was much stronger in the descending thoracic aorta and abdominal aorta, where the pulsatile flow has a strong net forward component than in the aortic arch and the poststenotic dilatation site beyond an experimental constriction, where the flow near the wall is complex and reciprocating with little net flow. With the use of flow chambers the effects of pulsatile flow (12 +/- 4 dyn/cm2 at 1 Hz) and reciprocating flow (0.5 +/- 4 dyn/cm2 at 1 Hz) on VE-cadherin organization in endothelial monolayers were studied in vitro. VE-cadherin staining was continuous along cell borders in static controls. Following 6 h of either pulsatile or reciprocating flow, the VE-cadherin staining at cell borders became intermittent. When the pulsatile flow was extended to 24, 48 or 72 h the staining around the cell borders became continuous again, but the staining was still intermittent when the reciprocating flow was similarly extended. Exposure to pulsatile or reciprocating flow for 6 and 24 h neither change the expression level of VE-cadherin nor its distribution between membrane and cytosol fractions as determined by Western blot and compared with static controls. These findings suggest that the cell junction remodeling induced by different flow patterns may result from a redistribution of VE-cadherin within the cell membrane. Both the in vivo and in vitro data indicate that pulsatile and reciprocating flow patterns have different effects on cell junction remodeling. The lack of junction reorganization in regions of reciprocating flow in vivo and in vitro may provide a mechanistic basis for the high permeability and the preferential localization of atherosclerosis in regions of the arterial stress with complex flow patterns and fluctuating shear stress.