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Development. 1994 Sep;120(9):2369-83.

Programming gene expression in developing epidermis.

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  • 1Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, University of Chicago, IL 60637.


As the major proteins of adult keratinocytes, keratins provide biochemical markers for exploring mouse epidermal embryogenesis. Here, we used a modified method of whole-mount in situ hybridization to track skin-specific expression of endogenous keratin mRNAs throughout embryogenesis. To monitor transcriptional regulation, we coupled this with beta-galactosidase expression of a human epidermal keratin promoter-driven transgene. These studies have radically changed our perception of how the program of gene expression becomes established during epidermal development. Specifically, we have discovered that (1) basal keratin (K5 and K14) genes are first detected at E9.5 in a highly regional fashion, and surprisingly as early as the single layered ectodermal stage; (2) the early patterns do not correlate with morphogenesis per se, but rather with regional variations in the embryonic origin of underlying mesenchyme, supporting morphogenetic criteria that early inductive cues are mesenchymal; (3) epidermal keratin genes are expressed in periderm, supporting the notion that this layer arises from ectodermal stratification, even though it is simple epithelial-like in morphology and is subsequently sloughed during development; (4) later embryonic patterns of K5 and K14 gene expression parallel proliferative capacity and not stratification; and (5) K1 and K10 mRNAs are first detected as early as E13.5, and their patterns correlate with differentiation and not stratification. These patterns of epidermal gene expression led us to explore whether potential transcriptional regulators of these genes are expressed similarly. We show that AP2 (but not Sp1) cRNAs hybridize in a pattern similar to, but preceding that of basal keratin cRNAs. Finally, using gene expression in cultured cells, we demonstrate that AP2 has a strong inductive effect on basal keratin expression in a cellular environment that does not normally possess AP2 activity.

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