Because in mammals the anterior pituitary lacks innervation, we investigated whether gap junctions established between selected cells within the gland are part of an intrapituitary mechanism to ensure physiological synchronization of cells involved in the control of hormone secretion. We report here the dynamics of anterior pituitary connexin 43 (Cx43)-gap junctions throughout the mink (Mustela vison) annual reproductive cycle and its relationship with the anterior pituitary prolactin (PRL) content that parallels variations in serum PRL levels documented in the literature. We found that PRL anterior pituitary levels were maximal in spring and during lactation and that they were minimal in autumn and winter. Anterior pituitary Cx43 levels were maximal during periods of high PRL secretion. During these periods, Cx43-positive gap junctions localized to stellate-shaped cells occupying the center of anterior pituitary follicles and to the rounded cells occupying the remaining follicles. Connexin 43-positive gap junctions were also observed between adjacent follicles. During periods of low PRL pituitary content, Cx43-positive gap junctions localized to the stellate cells but not to the cells of the remaining follicles. Moreover, Cx43 labeling was undetected between adjacent follicles. To assess between which cells within the mink anterior pituitary the Cx43 gap junctions were established, the different anterior pituitary cell populations were separated by a discontinuous Percoll gradient, and Western blot analyses of each cell population using Cx43 antibodies were performed. The immunoblots showed a Cx43 immunoreactive band associated with the cell layer enriched in S-100-positive, stellate-shaped cells. The result was confirmed by fluorescence microscopy studies that showed that Cx43-mediated gap junctions were established preferentially between the cultured S-100-positive, elongated cells. The results show that in mink stellate cells, the junctional machinery associated with the Cx43 protein varies in synchrony with the anterior pituitary PRL content throughout the mink annual reproductive cycle. It is suggested that the Cx43 gap junctions on the stellate cells play an important role in the synchronization of cellular activity within selected follicles of the anterior pituitary, thus contributing to the control of PRL secretion during the annual reproductive cycle.
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