A structural and functional comparison of gap junction channels composed of connexins and innexins
Gap junctions are clusters of intercellular channels that provide cells, in all metazoan organisms, with a means of communicating directly with their neighbours. Surprisingly, two gene families have evolved to fulfil this fundamental, and highly conserved, function. In vertebrates, gap junctions are assembled from a large family of connexin proteins. Innexins were originally characterized as the structural components of gap junctions in Drosophila, an arthropod, and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Since then, innexin homologues have been identified in representatives of the other major invertebrate phyla and in insect-associated viruses. Intriguingly, functional innexin homologues have also been found in vertebrate genomes. These studies have informed our understanding of the molecular evolution of gap junctions and have greatly expanded the numbers of model systems available for functional studies. Genetic manipulation of innexin function in relatively simple cellular systems should speed progress not only in defining the importance of gap junctions in a variety of biological processes but also in elucidating the mechanisms by which they act.