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Prog Histochem Cytochem. 2006;40(2):73-134. Epub 2006 Mar 14.

Cytochemical, biochemical and molecular aspects of the process of keratinization in the epidermis of reptilian scales.

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Dipartimento di Biologia evoluzionistica sperimentale, via Selmi 3, University of Bologna, 40126 Bologna, Italy.


The characteristics of scaled skin of reptiles is one of their main features that distinguish them from the other amniotes, birds and mammals. The different scale patterns observed in extant reptiles result from a long evolutive history that allowed each species to adapt to its specific environment. The present review deals with comparative aspects of epidermal keratinization in reptiles, chelonians (turtles and tortoises), lepidosaurian (lizards, snakes, sphenodontids), archosaurians (crocodilians). Initially the morphology and cytology of reptilian scales is outlined to show the diversity in the epidermis among different groups. The structural proteins (alpha-keratins and associated proteins), and enzymes utilized to form the corneous layer of the epidermis are presented. Aside cytokeratins (alpha-keratins), used for making the cytoskeleton, reptilian alpha-keratinocytes produce interkeratin (matrix) and corneous cell envelope proteins. Keratin bundles and degraded cell organelles constitute most of the corneous material of alpha-keratinocytes. Matrix, histidine-rich and sulfur-rich proteins are produced in the soft epidermis and accumulated in the cornified cell envelope. Main emphasis is given to the composition and to the evolution of the hard keratins (beta-keratins). Beta-keratins constitute the hard corneous material of scales. These small proteins are synthesized in beta-keratinocytes and are accumulated into small packets that rapidly merge into a compact corneous material and form densely cornified layers. Beta-keratins are smaller proteins (8-20 kDa) in comparison to alpha-keratins (40-70 kDa), and this size may determine their dense packing in corneocytes. Both glycine-sulfur-rich and glycine-proline-rich proteins have been so far sequenced in the corneous material of scales in few reptilian species. The latter keratins possess C- and N-amino terminal amino acid regions with sequence homology with those of mammalian hard keratins. Also, reptilian beta-keratins possess a central core with homology with avian scale/feather keratins. Multiple genes code for these proteins and their discovery and sequentiation is presently an active field of research. These initial findings however suggest that ancient reptiles already possessed some common genes that have later diversified to produce the specific keratin-associated proteins in their descendants: extant reptiles, birds and mammals. The evolution of these small proteins in lepidosaurians, chelonians and archosaurians represent the next step to understand the evolution of cornification in reptiles and derived amniotes (birds and mammals).

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