Tight junctions and differentiation – a chicken or the egg question?

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Abstract

Skin barrier function is indispensable to prevent the uncontrolled loss of water and solutes and to protect the body from external assaults. To fulfil this function, keratinocytes undergo a complex pathway of differentiation that terminates in the formation of the stratum corneum. Additionally, tight junctions (TJs), which are cell–cell junctions localized in the stratum granulosum, are involved in the barrier function of the skin. Important biological and clinical roles of TJs are strongly suggested by altered TJ protein levels and distribution in skin diseases like psoriasis, ichthyosis and atopic dermatitis. Because these skin diseases show alterations in differentiation and TJs, it was suggested that changes in TJs might simply be a consequence of altered differentiation. However, in this viewpoint, we like to argue that the situation is not as simple and depends on the specific microenvironment. We discuss three hypotheses regarding the interplay between TJs/TJ proteins and differentiation: (1) TJs/TJ proteins are influenced by differentiation, (2) differentiation is influenced by TJs/TJ proteins, and (3) TJs/TJ proteins and differentiation are independent of each other. In addition, the concept is introduced that both processes are going on at the same time, which means that while one specific TJ protein/barrier component might be influenced by differentiation, the other may influence differentiation.

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