The function of occludin (Occ) in the tight junction is undefined. To gain insight into its role in epithelial cell biology, occludin levels in Madin-Darby canine kidney II cells were suppressed by stably expressing short interfering RNA. Suppression of occludin was associated with a decrease in claudins-1 and -7 and an increase in claudins-3 and -4. Claudin-2 levels were unaffected. The tight junction "fence" function was not impaired in suppressed Occ (Occ-) clones, as determined by BODIPY-sphingomyelin diffusion in the membrane. The most striking changes were those related to control of the cytoskeleton and the "gate" function of tight junctions. A reduced ability of Occ- clones to extrude apoptotic cells from the monolayers suggested that neighbors of apoptotic cells either failed to sense their presence or were unable to coordinate cytoskeletal activity necessary for their extrusion. To further test the extent to which actin cytoskeletal activity depends on the presence of occludin, Occ- and Occ+ monolayers were depleted of cholesterol. Previous studies showed that cholesterol depletion is associated with reorganization of the actin cytoskeleton and a fall in transepithelial electrical resistance. In contrast to control Occ (Occ+) cells, transepithelial electrical resistance did not fall significantly in cholesterol-depleted Occ- monolayers and they failed to generate Rho-GTP, one of the signaling molecules involved in regulating the actin cytoskeleton. While steady-state transepithelial electrical resistance was similar in all clones, tight junction permeability to mono- and divalent inorganic cations was increased in Occ- monolayers. In addition, there was a disproportionately large increase in permeability to monovalent organic cations, up to 6.96 A in diameter. Chloride permeability was unaffected and there was little change in mannitol flux. The data suggest that occludin transduces external (apoptotic cells) and intramembrane (rapid cholesterol depletion) signals via a Rho signaling pathway that, in turn, elicits reorganization of the actin cytoskeleton. Impaired signaling in the absence of occludin may also alter the dynamic behavior of tight junction strands, as reflected by an increase in permeability to large organic cations; the permeability of ion pores formed of claudins, however, is less affected.