Intercellular communication via gap junctions plays a critical role in numerous cellular processes, including the control of cell growth and differentiation, maintenance of tissue homeostasis and embryonic development. Gap junctions are aggregates of intercellular channels that enable adjacent cells in solid tissues to directly exchange ions and small molecules. These channels are formed by a family of integral membrane proteins called connexins, of which the best studied is connexin43. Connexins have a high turnover rate in most tissue types, and degradation of connexins is considered to be a tightly regulated process. Post-translational modification of connexins by ubiquitin is emerging as an important event in the regulation of connexin degradation. Ubiquitination is involved in endoplasmic reticulum-associated degradation of connexins as well as in trafficking of connexins to lysosomes. At both the endoplasmic reticulum and the plasma membrane, ubiquitination of connexins is strongly affected by changes in the extracellular environment. There is increasing evidence that the regulation of connexin ubiquitination might be an important mechanism for rapidly modifying the level of functional gap junctions at the plasma membrane, under both normal and pathological conditions. This review discusses the current knowledge about the regulation of intercellular communication via gap junctions by ubiquitination of connexins.
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