Intercellular tight junctions are dynamic structures involved in vectorial transport of water and electrolytes across the intestinal epithelium. Zonula occludens toxin derived from Vibrio cholerae interacts with a specific intestinal epithelial surface receptor, with subsequent activation of a complex intracellular cascade of events that regulate tight junction permeability. We postulated that this toxin may mimic the effect of a functionally and immunologically related endogenous modulator of intestinal tight junctions. Affinity-purified anti-zonula occludens toxin antibodies and the Ussing chamber assay were used to screen for one or more mammalian zonula occludens toxin analogues in both fetal and adult human intestine. A novel protein, zonulin, was identified that induces tight junction disassembly in non-human primate intestinal epithelia mounted in Ussing chambers. Comparison of amino acids in the active zonula occludens toxin fragment and zonulin permitted the identification of the putative receptor binding domain within the N-terminal region of the two proteins. Zonulin likely plays a pivotal role in tight junction regulation during developmental, physiological, and pathological processes, including tissue morphogenesis, movement of fluid, macromolecules and leukocytes between the intestinal lumen and the interstitium, and inflammatory/autoimmune disorders.

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