• gap junction;
  • smooth muscle;
  • aorta;
  • intercellular communication;
  • development


A characteristic property of the vascular smooth muscle cell is its ability to modulate between a contractile phenotype, responsible for control of vascular tone and tension, through to a synthetic phenotype, capable of migration and synthesis of extracellular matrix molecules. Smooth muscle cells are coupled by gap junctions, the membrane structures which permit direct intercellular passage of ions and small molecules, and which play a role both in electrical coupling and intercellular communication during patterning and development. We have previously found that connexin43 type gap junction expression is upregulated in the synthetic phenotype smooth muscle cellin vitroand during atherosclerotic plaque formation in human coronary arteries. On the basis of immunohistochemical labelling, confocal laser scanning microscopy and digital image analysis, we now report that relatively high levels of connexin43 are expressed during development of the rat thoracic aorta, temporally correlating with reported periods of smooth muscle cell proliferation and secretion of elastic laminae. A major peak in expression occurs at seven days post-natal, with a second less pronounced peak at 72 days post-natal. The principal peak in gap junction levels appears to coincide with increased post-natal blood pressure and aorta media thickening. The amount of gap junction labelling falls off to normal adult levels as the smooth muscle cells modulate towards the contractile phenotype and growth is completed. The results indicate an association between direct cell-to-cell communication and synthetic phenotype smooth muscle cell activity during aortic growth and patterning.