When human epidermal cells were seeded on floating rafts of collagen and fibroblasts, they stratified at the air-liquid interface. The suprabasal cells synthesized the large type II (K1) and type I (K10/K11) keratins characteristic of terminal differentiation in skin. At earlier times in culture, expression of the large type II keratins appeared to precede the expression of their type I partners. At later times, all suprabasal cells expressed both types, suggesting that the accumulation of a critical level of K1 keratin may be a necessary stimulus for K10 and K11 expression. Expression of the terminal differentiation-specific keratins was completely suppressed by adding retinoic acid to the culture medium, or by submerging the cultures in normal medium. In submerged cultures, removal of vitamin A by delipidization of the serum restored the keratinization process. In contrast, calcium and transforming growth factor-beta did not influence the expression of the large keratins in keratinocytes grown in the presence of retinoids, even though they are known to induce certain morphological features of terminal differentiation. Retinoic acid in the raft medium not only suppressed the expression of the large keratins, but, in addition, induced the synthesis of two new keratins not normally expressed in epidermis in vivo. Immunofluorescence localized one of these keratins, K19, to a few isolated cells of the stratifying culture. In contrast, the other keratin, K13, appeared uniformly in a few outer layers of the culture. Interestingly, K13 expression correlated well with the gradient of retinoid-mediated disruptions of intercellular interactions in the culture. These data suggest that K13 induction may in some way relate to the reduction in either the number or the strength of desmosomal contacts between suprabasal cells of stratified squamous epithelial tissues.

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