[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Cingulin, a component of vertebrate tight junctions, contains a head domain that controls its junctional recruitment and protein interactions. To determine whether lack of junctional cingulin affects tight-junction organization and function, we examined the phenotype of embryoid bodies derived from embryonic stem cells carrying one or two alleles of cingulin with a targeted deletion of the exon coding for most of the predicted head domain. In homozygous (-/-) embryoid bodies, no full-length cingulin was detected by immunoblotting and no junctional labeling was detected by immunofluorescence. In hetero- and homozygous (+/- and -/-) embryoid bodies, immunoblotting revealed a Triton-soluble, truncated form of cingulin, increased levels of the tight junction proteins ZO-2, occludin, claudin-6 and Lfc, and decreased levels of ZO-1. The +/- and -/- embryoid bodies contained epithelial cells with normal tight junctions, as determined by freeze-fracture and transmission electron microscopy, and a biotin permeability assay. The localization of ZO-1, occludin and claudin-6 appeared normal in mutant epithelial cells, indicating that cingulin is not required for their junctional recruitment. Real-time quantitative reverse-transcription PCR (real-time qRT-PCR) showed that differentiation of embryonic stem cells into embryoid bodies was associated with up-regulation of mRNAs for several tight junction proteins. Microarray analysis and real-time qRT-PCR showed that cingulin mutation caused a further increase in the transcript levels of occludin, claudin-2, claudin-6 and claudin-7, which were probably due to an increase in expression of GATA-6, GATA-4 and HNF-4alpha, transcription factors implicated in endodermal differentiation. Thus, lack of junctional cingulin does not prevent tight-junction formation, but gene expression and tight junction protein levels are altered by the cingulin mutation.