- The intestinal epithelium is a renewable tissue that requires precise balance between proliferation and differentiation, an essential process for the formation of a tightly sealed barrier. Zinc deficiency impairs the integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier and is associated with ulcerative and diarrheal pathologies, but the mechanisms underlying the role of Zn2+ are not well understood. Here, we determined a role of the colonocytic Zn2+ sensing receptor, ZnR/GPR39, in mediating Zn2+-dependent signaling and regulating the proliferation and differentiation of colonocytes. Silencing of ZnR/GPR39 expression attenuated Zn2+-dependent activation of ERK1/2 and AKT as well as downstream activation of mTOR/p70S6K, pathways that are linked with proliferation. Consistently, ZnR/GPR39 silencing inhibited HT29 and Caco-2 colonocyte proliferation, while not inducing caspase-3 cleavage. Remarkably, in differentiating HT29 colonocytes, silencing of ZnR/GPR39 expression inhibited alkaline phosphatase activity, a marker of differentiation. Furthermore, Caco-2 colonocytes showed elevated expression of ZnR/GPR39 during differentiation, whereas silencing of ZnR/GPR39 decreased monolayer transepithelial electrical resistance, suggesting compromised barrier formation. Indeed, silencing of ZnR/GPR39 or chelation of Zn2+ by the cell impermeable chelator CaEDTA was followed by impaired expression of the junctional proteins, that is, occludin, zonula-1 (ZO-1) and E-cadherin. Importantly, colon tissues of GPR39 knockout mice also showed a decrease in expression levels of ZO-1 and occludin compared with wildtype mice. Altogether, our results indicate that ZnR/GPR39 has a dual role in promoting proliferation of colonocytes and in controlling their differentiation. The latter is followed by ZnR/GPR39-dependent expression of tight junctional proteins, thereby leading to formation of a sealed intestinal epithelial barrier. Thus, ZnR/GPR39 may be a therapeutic target for promoting epithelial function and tight junction barrier integrity during ulcerative colon diseases.