Collaborative communication lies at the centre of multicellular life. Gap junctions (GJs) are surface membrane structures that allow direct communication between cells. They were discovered in the 1960s following the convergence of the detection of low-resistance electrical interactions between cells and anatomical studies of intercellular contact points. GJs purified from liver plasma membranes contained a 27 kDa protein constituent; it was later named Cx32 (connexin 32) after its full sequence was determined by recombinant technology. Identification of Cx43 in heart and later by a further GJ protein, Cx26 followed. Cxs have a tetraspan organization in the membrane and oligomerize during intracellular transit to the plasma membrane; these were shown to be hexameric hemichannels (connexons) that could interact end-to-end to generate GJs at areas of cell-to-cell contact. The structure of the GJ was confirmed and refined by a combination of biochemical and structural approaches. Progress continues towards obtaining higher atomic 3D resolution of the GJ channel. Today, there are 20 and 21 highly conserved members of the Cx family in the human and mouse genomes respectively. Model organisms such as Xenopus oocytes and zebra fish are increasingly used to relate structure to function. Proteins that form similar large pore membrane channels in cells called pannexins have also been identified in chordates. Innexins form GJs in prechordates; these two other proteins, although functionally similar, are very different in amino acid sequence to the Cxs. A time line tracing the historical progression of wide ranging research in GJ biology over 60 years is mapped out. The molecular basis of channel dysfunctions in disease is becoming evident and progress towards addressing Cx channel-dependent pathologies, especially in ischaemia and tissue repair, continues.

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