Cytokeratins are expressed in different types of epithelial cells in certain combinations of polypeptides of the acidic (type I) and basic (type II) subfamilies, showing "expression pairs." We have examined in vitro the ability of purified and denatured cytokeratin polypeptides of human, bovine, and rat origin to form the characteristic heterotypic subunit complexes, as determined by various electrophoretic techniques and chemical cross-linking, and, subsequently, intermediate-sized filaments (IFs), as shown by electron microscopy. We have found that all of the diverse type I cytokeratin polypeptides examined can form complexes and IFs when allowed to react with equimolar amounts of any of the type II polypeptides. Examples of successful subunit complex and IF formation in vitro include combinations of polypeptides that have never been found to occur in the same cell type in vivo, such as between epidermal cytokeratins and those from simple epithelia, and also heterologous combinations between cytokeratins from different species. The reconstituted complexes and IFs show stability properties, as determined by gradual "melting" and reassociation, that are similar to those of comparable native combinations or characteristic for the specific new pair combination. The results show that cytokeratin complex and IF formation in vitro requires the pairing of one representative of each the type I and type II subfamilies into the heterotypic tetramer but that there is no structural incompatibility between any of the members of the two subfamilies. These findings suggest that the co-expression of specific pair combinations observed in vivo has other reasons than general structural requirements for IF formation and probably rather reflects the selection of certain regulatory programs of expression during cell differentiation. Moreover, the fact that certain cytokeratin polypeptide pairs that readily form complexes in vitro and coexist in the same cells in vivo nevertheless show preferential, if not exclusive, partner relationships in the living cell points to the importance of differences of stabilities among cytokeratin complexes and/or the existence of extracytokeratinous factors involved in the specific formation of certain cytokeratin pairs.

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