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6 April 2011 Structure and Function of Intercellular Junctions in Human Cervical and Vaginal Mucosal Epithelia
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The mucosal epithelium is a major portal for microbial invasion. Mucosal barrier integrity is maintained by the physical interactions of intercellular junctional molecules on opposing epithelial cells. The epithelial mucosa in the female reproductive tract provides the first line of defense against sexually transmitted pathogenic bacteria and viruses, but little is known concerning the structure and molecular composition of epithelial junctions at this site. In the present study, the distribution of tight, adherens, and desmosomal junctions were imaged in the human endocervix (columnar epithelium) and ectocervix (stratified squamous epithelium) by electron microscopy, and permeability was assessed by tracking the penetration of fluorescent immunoglobulin G (IgG). To further define the molecular structure of the intercellular junctions, select junctional molecules were localized in the endocervical, ectocervical, and vaginal epithelium by fluorescent immunohistology. The columnar epithelial cells of the endocervix were joined by tight junctions that excluded apically applied fluorescent IgG. In contrast, the most apical layers of the ectocervical stratified squamous epithelium did not contain classical cell-cell adhesions and were permeable to IgG. The suprabasal and basal epithelial layers in ectocervical and vaginal tissue contained the most robust adhesions; molecules characteristic of exclusionary junctions were detected three to four cellular layers below the luminal surface and extended to the basement membrane. These data indicate that the uppermost epithelial layers of the ectocervix and vagina constitute a unique microenvironment; their lack of tight junctions and permeability to large-molecular-weight immunological mediators suggest that this region is an important battlefront in host defense against microbial pathogens.

Caitlin D. Blaskewicz, Jeffrey Pudney, and Deborah J. Anderson "Structure and Function of Intercellular Junctions in Human Cervical and Vaginal Mucosal Epithelia," Biology of Reproduction 85(1), 97-104, (6 April 2011).
Received: 10 January 2011; Accepted: 1 March 2011; Published: 6 April 2011

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