The major structural proteins of epithelia, the keratins, and the keratin filament-associated protein, filaggrin, were analyzed in more than 50 samples of human embryonic and fetal skin by one-dimensional SDS PAGE and immunoblotting with monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies. Companion samples were examined by immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. Based on structural characteristics of the epidermis, four periods of human epidermal development were identified. The first is the embryonic period (before 9 wk estimated gestational age), and the others are within the fetal period: stratification (9-14 wk), follicular keratinization (14-24 wk), and interfollicular keratinization (beginning at approximately 24 wk). Keratin proteins of both the acidic (AE1-reactive, type I) and the basic (AE3-reactive, type II) subfamilies were present throughout development. Keratin intermediate filaments were recognized in the tissue by electron microscopy and immunohistochemical staining. Keratins of 50 and 58 kD were present in the epidermis at all ages studied (8 wk to birth), and those of 56.5 and 67 kD were expressed at the time of stratification and increased in abundance as development proceeded. 40- and 52-kD keratins were present early in development but disappeared with keratinization. Immunohistochemical staining suggested the presence of keratins of 50 and 58 kD in basal cells, 56.5 and 67 kD in intermediate cells, and 40 and 52 kD in the periderm as well as in the basal cells between the time of stratification and birth. Filaggrin was first detected biochemically at approximately 15 wk and was localized immunohistochemically in the keratinizing cells that surround hair follicles. It was identified 8-10 wk later in the granular and cornified cell layers of keratinized interfollicular epidermis. These results demonstrate the following. An intimate relationship exists between expression of structural proteins and morphologic changes during development of the epidermis. The order of expression of individual keratins is consistent with the known expression of keratins in simple vs. stratified vs. keratinized epithelia. Expression of keratins typical of stratified epithelia (50 and 58 kD) precedes stratification, and expression of keratins typical of keratinization (56.5 and 67 kD) precedes keratinization, which suggests that their expression marks the tissue commitment to those processes. Because only keratins that have been demonstrated in various adult tissues are expressed during fetal development, we conclude that there are no "fetal" keratins per se.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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