Connections with connexins: the molecular basis of direct intercellular signaling

Eur J Biochem. 1996 May 15;238(1):1-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1432-1033.1996.0001q.x.


Adjacent cells share ions, second messengers and small metabolites through intercellular channels which are present in gap junctions. This type of intercellular communication permits coordinated cellular activity, a critical feature for organ homeostasis during development and adult life of multicellular organisms. Intercellular channels are structurally more complex than other ion channels, because a complete cell-to-cell channel spans two plasma membranes and results from the association of two half channels, or connexons, contributed separately by each of the two participating cells. Each connexon, in turn, is a multimeric assembly of protein subunits. The structural proteins comprising these channels, collectively called connexins, are members of a highly related multigene family consisting of at least 13 members. Since the cloning of the first connexin in 1986, considerable progress has been made in our understanding of the complex molecular switches that control the formation and permeability of intercellular channels. Analysis of the mechanisms of channel assembly has revealed the selectivity of inter-connexin interactions and uncovered novel characteristics of the channel permeability and gating behavior. Structure/function studies have begun to provide a molecular understanding of the significance of connexin diversity and demonstrated the unique regulation of connexins by tyrosine kinases and oncogenes. Finally, mutations in two connexin genes have been linked to human diseases. The development of more specific approaches (dominant negative mutants, knockouts, transgenes) to study the functional role of connexins in organ homeostasis is providing a new perception about the significance of connexin diversity and the regulation of intercellular communication.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Cations
  • Cell Membrane Permeability
  • Connexins / chemistry*
  • Connexins / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phosphorylation
  • Signal Transduction


  • Cations
  • Connexins