Multi-layered ("stratified") epithelia differ from one-layered ("simple") polar epithelia by various architectural and functional properties as well as by their cytoskeletal complements, notably a set of cytokeratins characteristic of stratified tissue. The simple epithelial cytokeratins 8 and 18 have so far not been detected in any stratified epithelium. Using specific monoclonal antibodies we have noted, in several but not all samples of stratified epithelia, including esophagus, tongue, exocervix, and vagina, positive immunocytochemical reactions for cytokeratins 8, 18, and 19 which in some regions were selective for the basal cell layer(s) but extended into suprabasal layers in others. In situ hybridization with different probes (riboprobes, synthetic oligonucleotides) for mRNAs of cytokeratin 8 on esophageal epithelium has shown, in extended regions, relatively strong reactivity for cytokeratin 8 mRNA in the basal cell layer. In contrast, probes to cytokeratin 18 have shown much weaker hybridization which, however, was rather evenly spread over basal and suprabasal strata. These results, which emphasize the importance of in situ hybridization in studies of gene expression in complex tissues, show that the genes encoding simple epithelial cytokeratins can be expressed in stratified epithelia. This suggests that continual expression of genes coding for simple epithelial cytokeratins is compatible with the formation of squamous stratified tissues and can occur, at least in basal cell layers, simultaneously with the synthesis of certain stratification-related cytokeratins. We also emphasize differences of expression and immunoreactivity of these cytokeratins between different samples and in different regions of the same stratified epithelium and discuss the results in relation to changes of cytokeratin expression during fetal development of stratified epithelia, in response to environmental factors and during the formation of squamous cell carcinomas.

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