Dev Cell. 2020 Sep 28;54(6):792-804.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2020.07.022. Epub 2020 Aug 24.
In vertebrates, epithelial permeability is regulated by the tight junction (TJ) formed by specialized adhesive membrane proteins, adaptor proteins, and the actin cytoskeleton. Despite the TJ’s critical physiological role, a molecular-level understanding of how TJ assembly sets the permeability of epithelial tissue is lacking. Here, we identify a 28-amino-acid sequence in the TJ adaptor protein ZO-1, which is responsible for actin binding, and show that this interaction is essential for TJ permeability. In contrast to the strong interactions at the adherens junction, we find that the affinity between ZO-1 and actin is surprisingly weak, and we propose a model based on kinetic trapping to explain how affinity could affect TJ assembly. Finally, by tuning the affinity of ZO-1 to actin, we demonstrate that epithelial monolayers can be engineered with a spectrum of permeabilities, which points to a promising target for treating transport disorders and improving drug delivery.