During the assembly of gap junctions, a hemichannel in the plasma membrane of one cell is thought to align and dock with another in an apposed membrane to form a cell-to-cell channel. We report here on the existence and properties of nonjunctional, plasma membrane connexin43 (Cx43) hemichannels. The opening of the hemichannels was demonstrated by the cellular uptake of 5(6)-carboxyfluorescein from the culture medium when extracellular calcium levels were reduced. Dye uptake exhibited properties similar to those of gap junction channels. For example, using different dyes, the levels of uptake were correlated with molecular size: 5(6)-carboxyfluorescein (~32%), 7- hydroxycoumarin-3-carboxylic acid (~24%), fura-2 (~11%), and fluorescein- dextran (~0.4%). Octanol and heptanol also reduced dye uptake by ~50%. Detailed analysis of one clone of Novikoff cells transfected with a Cx43 antisense expression vector revealed a reduction in dye uptake levels according to uptake assays and a corresponding decrease in intercellular dye transfer rates in microinjection experiments. In addition, a more limited decrease in membrane resistance upon reduction of extracellular calcium was detected in electrophysiological studies of antisense transfectants, in contrast to control cells. Studies of dye uptake in HeLa cells also demonstrated a large increase following transfection with Cx43. Together these observations indicate that Cx43 is responsible for the hemichannel function in these cultured cells. Similar dye uptake results were obtained with normal rat kidney (NRK) cells, which express Cx43. Dye uptake can be dramatically inhibited by 12-O-tetradeconylphorbol-13-acetate-activated protein kinase C in these cell systems and by a temperature-sensitive tyrosine protein kinase, pp60(v-src) in LA25-NRK cells. We conclude that Cx43 hemichannels are found in the plasma membrane, where they are regulated by multiple signaling pathways, and likely represent an important stage in gap junction assembly.