Colon epithelial cell TGFβ signaling modulates the expression of tight junction proteins and barrier function in mice

Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2021 Jun 1;320(6):G936-G957. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00053.2021. Epub 2021 Mar 24.


Defective barrier function is a predisposing factor in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and colitis-associated cancer (CAC). Although TGFβ signaling defects have been associated with IBD and CAC, few studies have examined the relationship between TGFβ and intestinal barrier function. Here, we examine the role of TGFβ signaling via SMAD4 in modulation of colon barrier function. The Smad4 gene was conditionally deleted in the intestines of adult mice and intestinal permeability assessed using an in vivo 4 kDa FITC-Dextran (FD4) permeability assay. Mouse colon was isolated for gene expression (RNA-sequencing), Western blot, and immunofluorescence analysis. In vitro colon organoid culture was utilized to assess junction-related gene expression by qPCR and transepithelial resistance (TER). In silico analyses of human IBD and colon cancer databases were performed. Mice lacking intestinal expression of Smad4 demonstrate increased colonic permeability to FD4 without gross mucosal damage. mRNA/protein expression analyses demonstrate significant increases in Cldn2/Claudin 2 and Cldn8/Claudin 8, and decreases in Cldn3, Cldn4, and Cldn7/Claudin 7 with intestinal SMAD4 loss in vivo without changes in Claudin protein localization. TGFβ1/BMP2 treatment of polarized SMAD4+ colonoids increases TER. Cldn2, Cldn4, Cldn7, and Cldn8 are regulated by canonical TGFβ signaling, and TGFβ-dependent regulation of these genes is dependent on nascent RNA transcription (Cldn2, Cldn4, Cldn8) but not nascent protein translation (Cldn4, Cldn8). Human IBD/colon cancer specimens demonstrate decreased SMAD4, CLDN4, CLDN7, and CLDN8 and increased CLDN2 compared with healthy controls. Canonical TGFβ signaling modulates the expression of tight junction proteins and barrier function in mouse colon.NEW & NOTEWORTHY We demonstrate that canonical TGFβ family signaling modulates the expression of critical tight junction proteins in colon epithelial cells, and that expression of these tight junction proteins is associated with maintenance of colon epithelial barrier function in mice.

Keywords: claudin; inflammatory bowel disease; tight junction; transforming growth factor β.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Colon / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Smad4 Protein / genetics
  • Smad4 Protein / metabolism
  • Tight Junction Proteins / genetics
  • Tight Junction Proteins / metabolism*
  • Tight Junctions / metabolism
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism*


  • Smad4 Protein
  • Tight Junction Proteins
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta