A population of neonatal mouse keratinocytes (epidermal basal cells) was obtained by gentle, short-term trypsin separation of the epidermal and dermal skin compartments and discontinuous Ficoll gradient purification of the resulting epidermal cells. Over 4--6 wk of culture growth at 32--33 degrees C, the primary cultures formed a complete monolayer that exhibited entire culture stratification and upper cell layer shedding. Transmission and scanning electron microscopy demonstrated that the keratinocyte cultures progressed from one to two cell layers through a series of stratification and specialization phenomena to a six to eight cell layer culture containing structures characteristic of epidermal cells and resembling in vivo epidermal development. The temporal development of primary epidermal cell culture specialization was confirmed by use of two histological techniques which differentially stain the specializing upper cell layers of neonatal mouse skin. No detectable dermal fibroblast co-cultivation was demonstrated by use of the leucine aminopeptidase histochemical technique and routine electron microscope surveillance of the cultures. Incorporation of [3H]thymidine ([3H]Tdr) was greater than 85% into DNA and was inhibited by both 20 micron cytosine arabinoside (Ara-C) and low temperature. Autoradiography and 90% inhibition of [3H]Tdr incorporation by 2 mM hydroxyurea indicated that keratinocyte culture DNA synthesis was scheduled (not a repair phenomenon). The primary keratinocytes showed an oscillating pattern of [3H]Tdr incorporation into DNA over the initial 23--25 days of growth. Autoradiography demonstrated that the cultures contained 10--30% proliferative stem cells from days 2-25 of culture. The reproducibility of both the proliferation and specialization patterns of the described primary epidermal cell culture system indicates that these cultures are a useful tool for investigations of functioning epidermal cell homeostatic control mechanisms.

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