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Anat Rec. 1977 Dec;189(4):577-94.

Membrane alterations during cornification of mammalian squamous epithelia: a freeze-fracture, tracer, and thin-section study.


Tight junctions (zonulae occludentes) create a pericellular barrier to the diffusion of large molecules in non-keratinizing mammalian epithelia. However, in cornifying epithelia such as the epidermis, the importance of tight-junctional elements versus secreted intercellular lipid for barrier function is uncertain. In an attempt to resolve this question, we compared membrane structure in the stratum granulosum and stratum corneum of epidermis, esophagus, and vagina of newborn and adult humans and mice under both normal and various experimental conditions. We incubated pieces of epidermis in organ culture and infused tissues with lanthanum or horseradish peroxidase in vivo and in vitro. All were processed for electron microscopy of freeze-fracture replicas or thin sections. Lanthanum seeped outward to the stratum granulosum in all tissues examined--further apical migration was halted by lamellar-body contents in skin. A similar pattern of intercellular lamellar lipid deposition and membrane structure occurred in all epithelia studied. Freeze-fracture replicas of these obstructive regions revealed occasional, incomplete junctional strands (particularly in moist epithelia) and abundant lamellar material, but complete zonulae occludentes were never encountered. A possible relationship between moisture and tight junction formation was further suggested by organ culture experiments during which brief incubations stimulated an increase in the number of junctional strands and diminished numbers of lamellar bodies. We conclude that, in the epithelia studied, the deposition of secreted lamellar body contents forms the barrier to water-soluble tracer loss: tight-junctional elements are either absent or too fragmentary to constitute an effective barrier.

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