In the epidermis, the cells are tightly interconnected to serve as a tight barrier. The junctions between the epidermal cells is adherens junction type. These junctions are formed by transmembrane proteins called cadherins. Inside the cell, the cadherins are linked to actin filaments. In immunofluorescence microscopy, the actin filament network appears as a thick border surrounding the cells. Yet, as noted, the actin filaments are located inside the cell and run parallel to the cell membrane. Because of the proximity of the neighboring cells and tightness of the junctions, the actin immunofluorescence appears as a border between cells.
Schematic image showing a section of epidermis, with epidermal layers labeled
The epidermis is composed of 4 or 5 layers depending on the region of skin being considered. Those layers in descending order are:
Composed of 10 to 30 layers of polyhedral, anucleated corneocytes (final step of keratinocyte differentiation), with the palms and soles having the most layers. Corneocytes are surrounded by a protein envelope (cornified envelope proteins), filled with water-retaining keratin proteins, attached together through corneodesmosomes and surrounded in the extracellular space by stacked layers of lipids. Most of the barrier functions of the epidermis localize to this layer.
Confocal image of the stratum spinosum already showing some clulsters of basal cells
Keratinocytes become connected through desmosomes and start produce lamellar bodies, from within the Golgi, enriched in polar lipids, glycosphingolipids, free sterols, phospholipids and catabolic enzymes. Langerhans cells, immunologically active cells, are located in the middle of this layer.
Confocal image of the stratum basale already showing some papillae
Composed mainly of proliferating and non-proliferating keratinocytes, attached to the basement membrane by hemidesmosomes. Melanocytes are present, connected to numerous keratinocytes in this and other strata through dendrites. Merkel cells are also found in the stratum basale with large numbers in touch-sensitive sites such as the fingertips and lips. They are closely associated with cutaneous nerves and seem to be involved in light touch sensation.
The stratified squamous epithelium is maintained by cell division within the stratum basale. Differentiating cell delaminate from the basement membrane and are displaced outwards through the epidermal layers, undergoing multiple stages of differentiation until, in the stratum corneum, losing their nucleus and fusing to squamous sheets, which are eventually shed from the surface (desquamation). Differentiated keratinocytes secrete keratin proteins which contribute to the formation of an extracellular matrix and is an integral part of the skin barrier function. In normal skin, the rate of keratinocyte production equals the rate of loss, taking about two weeks for a cell to journey from the stratum basale to the top of the stratum granulosum, and an additional four weeks to cross the stratum corneum. The entire epidermis is replaced by new cell growth over a period of about 48 days.
Keratinocyte differentiation throughout the epidermis is in part mediated by a calcium gradient, increasing from the stratum basale until the outer stratum granulosum, where it reaches its maximum, and decreasing in the stratum corneum. Calcium concentration in the stratum corneum is very low in part because those relatively dry cells are not able to dissolve the ions. This calcium gradient parallels keratinocyte differentiation and as such is considered a key regulator in the formation of the epidermal layers.
Elevation of extracellular calcium concentrations induces an increase in intracellular free calcium concentrations. Part of that intracellular increase comes from calcium released from intracellular stores and another part comes from transmembrane calcium influx, through both calcium-sensitive chloride channels and voltage-independent cation channels permeable to calcium. Moreover, it has been suggested that an extracellular calcium-sensing receptor (CaSR) also contributes to the rise in intracellular calcium concentration.
The cells in the stratum granulosum do not divide, but instead form skin cells called keratinocytes from the granules of keratin. These skin cells finally become the cornified layer (stratum corneum), the outermost epidermal layer, where the cells become flattened sacks with their nuclei located at one end of the cell. After birth these outermost cells are replaced by new cells from the stratum granulosum and throughout life they are shed at a rate of 0.001 - 0.003 ounces of skin flakes every hour, or 0.024-0.072 ounces per day.
Sudden and large shifts in humidity alter stratum corneum hydration in a way that could allow entry of pathogenic microorganisms.
The ability of the skin to hold water is primarily due to the stratum corneum and is critical for maintaining healthy skin. Lipids arranged through a gradient and in an organized manner between the cells of the stratum corneum form a barrier to transepidermal water loss.
The amount and distribution of melaninpigment in the epidermis is the main reason for variation in skin color in Homo sapiens. Melanin is found in the small melanosomes, particles formed in melanocytes from where they are transferred to the surrounding keratinocytes. The size, number, and arrangement of the melanosomes varies between racial groups, but while the number of melanocytes can vary between different body regions, their numbers remain the same in individual body regions in all human beings. In white and Asian skin the melanosomes are packed in "aggregates", but in black skin they are larger and distributed more evenly. The number of melanosomes in the keratinocytes increases with UV radiation exposure, while their distribution remain largely unaffected.
Laboratory culture of keratinocytes to form a 3D structure (artificial skin) recapitulating most of the properties of the epidermis is routinely used as a tool for drug development and testing.
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