The polypeptide composition of epidermal keratin varies in disease. To better understand the biological meaning of these variations, we have analyzed keratins from a number of human epidermal diseases by the immunoblot technique using AE1 and AE3 monoclonal antikeratin antibodies. The results reveal a continuous spectrum of keratin expression ranging from one closely resembling the normal in vivo pattern to one almost identical to cultured epidermal keratinocytes. Specifically, a 50-kilodalton (kd) (AE1-positive) and a 58-kd (AE3-positive) keratin are present in all diseases, supporting the concept that they represent "permanent" markers for keratinocytes. A 56.5-kd (AE1) and a 65-67-kd (AE3) keratin, previously shown to be markers for keratinization, are expressed only by lesions retaining a keratinized morphology. A 48-kd (AE1) and a 56-kd (AE3) keratin are present in all hyperproliferative (para- or nonkeratinized) disorders, but not in normal abdominal epidermis or in ichthyosis vulgaris which is a nonhyperproliferative disease. These two keratins have previously been found in various nonepidermal keratinocytes undergoing hyperproliferation, suggesting that these keratins are not epidermis-specific and may represent markers for hyperproliferative keratinocytes in general. In various epidermal diseases, there is a reciprocal expression of the (keratin) markers for hyperproliferation and keratinization, supporting the mutual exclusiveness of the two cellular events. Moreover, our results indicate that, as far as keratin expression is concerned, cultured human epidermal cells resemble and thus may be regarded as a model for epidermal hyperplasia. Finally, the apparent lack of any major, disease-specific keratin changes in the epidermal disorders studied so far implies that keratin abnormalities probably represent the consequence, rather than the cause, of these diseases.

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