Comparison of the function of the tight junctions of endothelial cells and epithelial cells in regulating the movement of electrolytes and macromolecules across the cell monolayer

J Cell Physiol. 1990 Sep;144(3):498-504. doi: 10.1002/jcp.1041440318.


In cell culture, both endothelial and epithelial cell monolayers have been found to generate structurally similar tight junctional complexes, as assessed by thin complexes of the two cell types are, at least in part, responsible for the very different permeability characteristics of native endothelial and epithelial cell monolayers. The purpose of this work was to compare cultured endothelial and epithelial cells with respect to the function of their tight junctional complexes in regulating the movement of macromolecules and ions across the cell monolayers, and define functional parameters to characterize the tight junctional complexes. Bovine aorta endothelial cells and T84 colonic carcinoma epithelial cells were cultured on a microporous membrane support. The permeability coefficients of inulin, albumin, and insulin were determined with the cell monolayers and compared with the permeability coefficients obtained with 3T3-C2 fibroblasts, a cell line that does not generate tight junctions. Electrical resistance measurements across the monolayer-filter systems were also compared. The permeability coefficient of albumin across the endothelial cell monolayer compared favorably with other reported values. Likewise, the electrical resistance across the T84 cell monolayer was in good agreement with published values. Utilizing permeability coefficients for macromolecules as an index of tight junction function, we found that a distinction between a lack of tight junctions (fibroblasts), the presence of endothelial tight junctions, and the presence of epithelial tight junctions was readily made. However, when utilizing electrical resistance as an index of tight junction function, identical measurements were obtained with fibroblasts and endothelial cells. This indicates that more than one index of tight junction function is necessary to characterize the junctional complexes. Although structurally similar, epithelial cell and endothelial cell tight junctions perform very different functions, and, from our data, we conclude that the demonstration of tight junctional structures by electron microscopy is not relevant to the functional nature of the junction: structure does not imply function. A minimal assessment of tight junction function should rely on both the determination of the electrical resistance across the cell monolayer, and the determination of the permeability coefficients of selected macromolecules.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport / physiology
  • Cattle
  • Cell Communication / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Electrolytes / pharmacokinetics*
  • Endothelium, Vascular / cytology*
  • Endothelium, Vascular / metabolism
  • Endothelium, Vascular / physiology
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Epithelium / metabolism
  • Epithelium / physiology
  • Intercellular Junctions / physiology*
  • Macromolecular Substances


  • Electrolytes
  • Macromolecular Substances