The membrane topology of connexin32, a principal polypeptide of gap junctions in diverse cell types, has been studied in rat and mouse hepatocyte gap junctions using site-specific antisera raised against synthetic oligopeptides corresponding to amino acid sequences deduced from cDNA clones. Based on published hydropathicity maps and identified protease-sensitive cleavage sites, oligopeptides were synthesized corresponding to two hydrophilic domains of connexin32, one predicted to face the cytoplasm, the other predicted to be directed extracellularly. Antisera were raised to keyhole limpet hemocyanin conjugates of the oligopeptides and used to map the distribution of their antigens using indirect immunocytochemistry on isolated gap junctions. The results directly demonstrated the cytoplasmic orientation of an antigen contained within amino acids 98-124 of the connexin32 sequence. The extracellular space in intact, isolated gap junctions is too small to permit binding of antibody molecules, necessitating the experimental separation of the junctional membranes to expose their extracellular surfaces using a urea/alkali procedure. While an antigen contained within amino acids 164-189 was visualized on the extracellular surfaces of some of the separated junctional membranes, variability in the observations and in the splitting procedure left ambiguities concerning the biological relevance of the observations after the denaturing conditions necessary to separate the junctional membranes. Using a different approach, however, the antigen could be exposed in intact liver using a hypertonic disaccharide junction-splitting procedure. The period of time of antigen exposure at the cell surface appears to peak at 30 s and disappear by 2-4 min. Taken together, these data demonstrate the extracellular orientation of an antigen contained within amino acids 164-189, which may be involved in cell-cell interaction within the gap junction.