The cells of the atrioventricular (AV) junction in the ferret heart were examined using light microscopy, a wax-model reconstruction and quantitative electron microscopy to determine their organization and characteristics. A series of subdivisions of the specialized tissues of the AV junction was apparent at both the light and electron microscopic levels. A transitional zone was observed interposed between the atrial muscle cells and the AV node. The AV node consisted of a coronary sinus portion, a superficial portion and a deep portion. The AV bundle had a segment above the anulus fibrosus, a segment which penetrated the right fibrous trigone, a non-branching segment below the anulus fibrosus and a branched segment. At the ultrastructural level the AV junctional conduction tissues had fewer irregularly oriented myofibrils than did working atrial myocardial cells. T-tubules, present in atrial muscle cells, were not observed in the modified muscle cells of the AV node and bundle. Conventional intercalated discs also were not observed between the cells of the AV node or the AV bundle.
Atrial myocardial cells had the highest percentage of the plasma membrane occupied by desmosomes, fasciae adherentes and gap junctions. The AV bundle cells had the highest percentage of appositional surface membrane and a relatively large fraction of plasma membrane occupied by gap junctions. Cells of the superficial portion of the AV node had the smallest percentage of the plasma membrane composed of gap junctions, desmosomes or fasciae adherentes, as well as the smallest fraction of the cell membrane apposed to adjacent cells. The stereological data indicate that the most useful distinguishing characteristic between atrial muscle cells and conduction cells was that a smaller percentage of the conduction cell sarcoplasm was occupied by mitochondria and myofibrils. The most useful characteristics that could be used to differentiate between the regions of the AV junctional conduction tissues were the amounts and types of surface membrane specializations in the respective cell types.