In the epidermis, one of the earliest characterized events in keratinocyte differentiation is the coordinate induction of a pair of keratins specifically expressed in suprabasal cells, keratin 1 (K1) and keratin 10 (K10). Both in vivo and in vitro, extracellular calcium is necessary for several biochemical and structural changes during keratinocyte differentiation. However, it has been unclear if calcium serves as a differentiation signal in keratinocytes. In these studies, expression of suprabasal keratin mRNA and protein is used to test whether the initial differentiation of primary mouse keratinocytes in vitro is dependent on changes in the concentration of extracellular calcium. K1 mRNA was expressed at low levels in cultures of keratinocytes growing on plastic in 0.05 mM calcium but in attached cells was not further induced by increases in the concentration of extracellular calcium. Suspension of the keratinocytes into semi-solid medium induced a rapid and substantial increase in both expression of K1 mRNA and in the percentage of cells expressing suprabasal keratin proteins. The induction was unaffected by the concentration of calcium in the semi-solid medium and could not be enhanced by exposing attached cells to higher calcium before suspension. The induction of K1 mRNA could be inhibited by exposure of the keratinocytes to either EGF or fibronectin. These results suggest that commitment of mouse keratinocytes to terminal differentiation is independent of extracellular calcium and may be regulated primarily by extracellular factors other than calcium.

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