Keratins are the major structural proteins of the vertebrate epidermis and its appendages, constituting up to 85% of a fully differentiated keratinocyte. Together with actin microfilaments and microtubules, keratin filaments make up the cytoskeletons of vertebrate epithelial cells. Traced as far back in the evolutionary kingdom as mollusks, keratins belong to the superfamily of intermediate filament (IF) proteins that form alpha-helical coiled-coil dimers which associate laterally and end-to-end to form 10-nm diameter filaments. The evolutionary transition between organisms bearing an exoskeleton and those with an endoskeleton seemed to cause considerable change in keratin. Keratins expanded from a single gene to a multigene family. Of the approximately 60 IF genes in the human genome, half encode keratins, and at least 18 of these are expressed in skin. Vertebrate keratins are subdivided into two sequence types (I and II) that are typically coexpressed as specific pairs with complex expression patterns. The filament-forming capacity of a pair is dependent upon its intrinsic ability to self-assemble into coiled-coil heterodimers, a feature not required of the invertebrate keratins (Weber et al 1988). Approximately 20,000 heterodimers of type I and type II keratins assemble into an IF. Mutations that perturb keratin filament assembly in vitro can cause blistering human skin disorders in vivo. From studies of these diseases, an important function of keratins has been unraveled. These filaments impart mechanical strength to a keratinocyte, without which the cell becomes fragile and prone to rupturing upon physical stress. In this review, studies on the pattern of expression, structure, and function of skin keratins are summarized, and new insights into the functions of these proteins and their involvement in human disease are postulated.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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