Using an in vivo rabbit model system, we have studied the morphological and biochemical changes in corneal, conjunctival, and esophageal epithelia during vitamin A deficiency. Light and electron microscopy showed that the three epithelia undergo different degrees of morphological keratinization. Corneal and conjunctival epithelia became heavily keratinized, forming multiple layers of superficial, anucleated cornified cells. In contrast, esophageal epithelium underwent only minor morphological changes. To correlate morphological alterations with the expression of specific keratin molecules, we have analyzed the keratins from these epithelia by the immunoblot technique using the subfamily-specific AE1 and AE3 monoclonal antikeratin antibodies. The results indicate that during vitamin A deficiency, all three epithelia express an AE1-reactive, acidic 56.5-kd keratin and an AE3-reactive, basic 65-67-kd keratin. Furthermore, the expression of these two keratins correlated roughly with the degree of morphological keratinization. AE2 antibody (specific for the 56.5- and 65-67-kd keratins) stained keratinized corneal epithelial sections suprabasally, as in the epidermis, suggesting that these two keratins are expressed mainly during advanced stages of keratinization. These two keratins have previously been suggested to represent markers for epidermal keratinization. Our present data indicate that they can also be expressed by other stratified epithelia during vitamin A deficiency-induced keratinization, and suggest the possibility that they may play a role in the formation of the densely packed tonofilament bundles in cornified cells of keratinized tissues.

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