The four major keratins of normal human epidermis (molecular mass 50, 56.5, 58, and 65-67 kD) can be subdivided on the basis of charge into two subfamilies (acidic 50-kD and 56.5-kD keratins vs. relatively basic 58-kD and 65-67-kD keratins) or subdivided on the basis of co-expression into two "pairs" (50-kD/58-kD keratin pair synthesized by basal cells vs. 56.5-kD/65-67-kD keratin pair expressed in suprabasal cells). Acidic and basic subfamilies were separated by ion exchange chromatography in 8.5 M urea and tested for their ability to reassemble into 10-nm filaments in vitro. The two keratins in either subfamily did not reassemble into 10-nm filaments unless combined with members of the other subfamily. While electron microscopy of acidic and basic keratins equilibrated in 4.5 M urea showed that keratins within each subfamily formed distinct oligomeric structures, possibly representing precursors in filament assembly, chemical cross-linking followed by gel analysis revealed dimers and larger oligomers only when subfamilies were combined. In addition, among the four major keratins, the acidic 50-kD and basic 58-kD keratins showed preferential association even in 8.5 M urea, enabling us to isolate a 50-kD/58-kD keratin complex by gel filtration. This isolated 50-kD/58-kD keratin pair readily formed 10-nm filaments in vitro. These results demonstrate that in tissues containing multiple keratins, two keratins are sufficient for filament assembly, but one keratin from each subfamily is required. More importantly, these data provide the first evidence for the structural significance of specific co-expressed acidic/basic keratin pairs in the formation of epithelial 10-nm filaments.

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