The development of hormone-mediated Ca2+ signals was analysed in polarized doublets, triplets and quadruplets of rat hepatocytes by video imaging of fura2 fluorescence. These multicellular models showed dilated bile canaliculi, and gap junctions were observed by using an anti-connexin-32 antibody. They also showed highly organized Ca2+ signals in response to vasopressin or noradrenaline. Surprisingly, the primary rises in intracellular Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i) did not start randomly from any cell of the multiplet. It originated invariably in the same hepatocyte (first-responding cell), and then was propagated in a sequential manner to the nearest connected cells (cell 2, then 3, in triplets; cell 2, 3, then 4 in quadruplets). The sequential activation of the cells appeared to be an intrinsic property of multiplets of rat hepatocytes. (1) In the continued presence of hormones, the same sequential order was observed up to six times, i.e. at each train of oscillations occurring between the cells. (2) The order of [Ca2+]i responses was modified neither by the repeated addition of hormones nor by the hormonal dose. (3) The mechanical disruption of an intermediate cell slowed down the speed of the propagation, suggesting a role of gap junctions in the rapidity of the sequential activation of cells. (4) The same multiplet could have a different first-responding cell for vasopressin or noradrenaline, suggesting a role of the hormonal receptors in the sequentiality of cell responses. It is postulated that a functional heterogeneity of hormonal receptors, and the presence of functional gap junctions, are involved in the existence of sequentially ordered hormone-mediated [Ca2+]i rises in the multiplets of rat hepatocytes.

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