In this paper we present keratin expression data that lend strong support to a model of corneal epithelial maturation in which the stem cells are located in the limbus, the transitional zone between cornea and conjunctiva. Using a new monoclonal antibody, AE5, which is highly specific for a 64,000-mol-wt corneal keratin, designated RK3, we demonstrate that this keratin is localized in all cell layers of rabbit corneal epithelium, but only in the suprabasal layers of the limbal epithelium. Analysis of cultured corneal keratinocytes showed that they express sequentially three major keratin pairs. Early cultures consisting of a monolayer of "basal" cells express mainly the 50/58K keratins, exponentially growing cells synthesize additional 48/56K keratins, and postconfluent, heavily stratified cultures begin to express the 55/64K corneal keratins. Cell separation experiments showed that basal cells isolated from postconfluent cultures contain predominantly the 50/58K pair, whereas suprabasal cells contain additional 55/64K and 48/56K pairs. Basal cells of the older, postconfluent cultures, however, can become AE5 positive, indicating that suprabasal location is not a prerequisite for the expression of the 64K keratin. Taken together, these results suggest that the acidic 55K and basic 64K keratins represent markers for an advanced stage of corneal epithelial differentiation. The fact that epithelial basal cells of central cornea but not those of the limbus possess the 64K keratin therefore indicates that corneal basal cells are in a more differentiated state than limbal basal cells. These findings, coupled with the known centripetal migration of corneal epithelial cells, strongly suggest that corneal epithelial stem cells are located in the limbus, and that corneal basal cells correspond to "transient amplifying cells" in the scheme of "stem cells----transient amplifying cells----terminally differentiated cells."

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