The expression of cytokeratins and vimentin was investigated in Madin-Darby bovine epithelial cells (MDBK) in culture under conditions of varied cell spreading and cell-cell contact. When extensive cell-cell contact was achieved by seeding cells at high density in monolayer, or in suspension culture in which multicellular aggregates formed, the cells synthesized high levels of cytokeratins and low levels of vimentin. In contrast, in sparse monolayer and suspension cultures where cell-cell contact was minimal, the cells synthesized very low levels of cytokeratins. The level of vimentin synthesis was high in sparse monolayer culture and was low in both sparse and dense suspension cultures. The ratio of cytokeratin to vimentin synthesis was not affected during the cell cycle, or when cell growth was inhibited by ara C and in serum-starvation-stimulation experiments. The variations in the synthesis of cytokeratins and vimentin under the various culture conditions were also reflected at the level of mRNA activity in a cell-free in vitro translation system and as determined by RNA blot hybridization with cDNA to vimentin and cytokeratins. The results suggest that control of cytokeratin synthesis involves cell-cell contact, characteristic of epithelia in vivo, while vimentin synthesis responds to alterations in cell spreading.

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