The protective function of skin depends on successful completion of a tightly regulated multi-step differentiation program, during which the induction of markers for a specific stage in epidermal differentiation is coupled to repression of markers expressed at the preceding stage. We have explored the role of protein kinase C (PKC) in this process using an in vitro model system, in which cultures of primary mouse epidermal keratinocytes are induced to terminally differentiate by raising the Ca2+ concentration in the medium from 0.05 to 0.12 mM. At doses which activate PKC, 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) and 1-oleoyl-2-acetylglycerol block Ca(2+)-mediated induction of the spinous cell markers keratins K1 and K10 at both the protein and mRNA level. TPA and 1-oleoyl-2-acetylglycerol also rapidly repress K1 and K10 mRNA expression when added to differentiating keratinocyte cultures already expressing these markers. The inhibition of K1 mRNA expression by TPA is blocked in cells where PKC has been inactivated with bryostatin. TPA-mediated loss of K1 mRNA is also blocked in cells exposed to cycloheximide or actinomycin D implicating a PKC-induced protein factor in this process. The loss of K1 mRNA in TPA-treated cultures is the result of both a selective destabilization of K1 transcripts and a rapid inhibition of K1 gene transcription. In contrast to the dramatic repression of mRNAs typical for spinous cell differentiation, activation of PKC concurrently enhances expression of mRNAs and proteins for the granular cell markers loricrin and filaggrin. This response does not occur in cells pre-treated with bryostatin to inactivate PKC. Our results suggest that PKC is a fundamental regulator of the coordinate changes in keratinocyte gene expression that occur during the spinous to granular cell transition in epidermis.

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