We propose a new electron microscopic method, the sodium dodecylsulphate (SDS)-digested freeze-fracture replica labeling technique, to study the two-dimensional distribution of integral membrane proteins in cellular membranes. Unfixed tissue slices were frozen with liquid helium, freeze-fractured, and replicated in a platinum/carbon evaporator. They were digested with 2.5% SDS to solubilize unfractured membranes and cytoplasm. While the detergent dissolved unfractured membranes and cytoplasm, it did not extract fractured membrane halves. After SDS-digestion, the platinum/carbon replicas, along with attached cytoplasmic and exoplasmic membrane halves, were processed for cytochemical labeling, followed by electron microscopic observation. As an initial screening, we applied this technique to the immunogold labeling of intercellular junction proteins: connexins (gap junction proteins), occludin (tight junction protein), desmoglein (desmosome protein), and E-cadherin (adherens junction protein). The immunogold labeling was seen superimposed on the image of a fracture face visualized by platinum/carbon shadowing. The immunoreaction was specific, and only the structures where the proteins were expected were labeled. For instance, anti-occludin immunogold complexes were observed immediately adjacent to the tight junction strands on the protoplasmic and exoplasmic fracture faces. No significant levels of gold label were associated with non-tight-junctional regions of plasma membranes. The procedures of the SDS-digested freeze-fracture replica labeling and its potential significance are discussed.
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