Keratin 5 and keratin 14 have been touted as the hallmarks of the basal keratin networks of all stratified squamous epithelia. Absence of K14 gives rise to epidermolysis bullosa simplex, a human blistering skin disorder involving cytolysis in the basal layer of epidermis. To address the puzzling question of why this disease is primarily manifested in skin rather than other stratified squamous epithelia, we ablated the K14 gene in mice and examined various tissues expressing this gene. We show that a key factor is the presence of another keratin, K15, which was hitherto unappreciated as a basal cell component. We show that the levels of K15 relative to K14 vary dramatically among stratified squamous epithelial tissues, and with neonatal development. In the absence of K14, K15 makes a bona fide, but ultrastructurally distinct, keratin filament network with K5. In the epidermis of neonatal mutant mice, K15 levels are low and do not compensate for the loss of K14. In contrast, the esophagus is unaffected in the neonatal mutant mice, but does appear to be fragile in the adult. Parallel to this phenomenon is that esophageal K14 is expressed at extremely low levels in the neonate, but rises in postnatal development. Finally, despite previous conclusions that the formation of suprabasal keratin filaments might depend upon K5/K14, we find that a wide variety of suprabasal networks composed of different keratins can form in the absence of K14 in the basal layer.

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