Differentiation of the epidermis during embryonic rabbit development was found to be accompanied by dramatic changes in keratin proteins. Immunofluorescent labeling with keratin antiserum revealed that the undifferentiated epithelium of 12-d embryos was already committed to making keratin proteins. At 18 d of embryogenesis, the epithelium contained keratin proteins in the molecular weight range of 40,000-59,000. The stratification of the epithelium into two cell layers at 20 d of development coincided with the appearance of a 65-kdalton keratin. When a thick stratum corneum developed at 29 d, several additional keratins became prominent, most notably the large keratins (61- and 64-kdalton) and a 54-kdalton keratin. In addition, the 40-kdalton keratin, which had been present in earlier embryonic epidermis, disappeared. Newborn epidermis resembled that of a 29-d embryonic epidermis, with the exception of the appearance or increase in concentration of two more keratin species (46- and 50-kdalton). In vitro culturing of keratinocytes from 12- and 14-d embryonic skin demonstrated that these cells contained essentially the same keratin profiles as the undifferentiated epithelium of 18-d embryos (40-59 kdalton). Keratinocytes grown from older embryos contained increased amounts of keratin, similar to the in vivo situation, but did not synthesize the high molecular weight keratins. The changes observed during embryonic epidermal differentiation appear to be recapitulated during the sequential maturation steps of adult epidermis.

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