Great promises yet to be fulfilled: Defining keratin intermediate filament function in vivo

Pierre A. Coulombe, Xuemei Tong, Stacy Mazzalupo, Zhiling Wang, Pauline Wong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Keratins are abundant proteins in epithelial cells, in which they occur as a cytoplasmic network of 10-12 nm wide intermediate filaments (IFs). They are encoded by a large family of conserved genes in mammals, with more than 50 individual members partitioned into two sequence types. A strict requirement for the heteropolymerization of type I and type II keratin proteins during filament formation underlies the pairwise transcriptional regulation of keratin genes. In addition, individual pairs are regulated in a tissue-type and differentiation-specific manner. Elucidating the rationale behind the diversity and differential distribution of keratin proteins offers the promise of novel insight into epithelial biology. At present, we know that keratin IFs act as resilient yet pliable scaffolds that endow epithelial cells with the ability to sustain mechanical and non-mechanical stresses. Accordingly, inherited mutations altering the coding sequence of keratins underlie several epithelial fragility disorders. In addition, keratin IFs influence the cellular response to pro-apoptotic signals in specific settings, and the routing of membrane proteins in polarized epithelia. Here we review studies focused on a subset of keratin genes, K6, K16 and K17, showing a complex regulation in vivo, including a widely known upregulation during wound repair and in diseased skin. Progress in defining the function of these and other keratins through gene manipulation in mice has been hampered by functional redundancy within the family. Still, detailed studies of the phenotype exhibited by K6 and K17 null mice yielded novel insight into the properties and function of keratin IFs in vivo.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)735-746
Number of pages12
JournalEuropean journal of cell biology
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Dec 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Ectodermal dysplasia
  • Functional redundancy
  • Hair
  • Injury
  • Keratins
  • Nail
  • Wound repair

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology
  • Cell Biology


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