A Gandarillas, LA Goldsmith, S Gschmeissner, IM Leigh, FM Watt
Although there are clear parallels between apoptosis and epidermal terminal differentiation it is unclear whether terminal differentiation of keratinocytes is a form of apoptosis. We found that apoptosis was rare in adherent cultures of normal keratinocytes, even when growth factors were removed. When keratinocytes were placed in suspension for 24-96 h the majority of cells were induced to undergo terminal differentiation, as assessed by involucrin expression and cornified envelope assembly, but few cells underwent apoptosis, as assessed by morphological examination, TUNEL labelling and by DNA laddering. Withdrawal of serum and growth factors stimulated apoptosis of suspended keratinocytes but led to some reduction in the number of cells that underwent terminal differentiation. At 96 h the majority of cells retained their nuclei in the presence or absence of serum and growth factors. In normal epidermis only occasional cells within the granular layer had apoptotic nuclei, determined by TUNEL labelling and light and electron microscopy. In affected epidermis of psoriasis, Darier's disease and pityriasis rubra pilaris, diseases characterized by perturbation of growth, differentiation or adhesion, light microscopy revealed no higher proportion of apoptotic nuclei than in normal epidermis. However, the majority of viable epidermal layers in diseased skin were positive by TUNEL labelling, suggesting that TUNEL is not always a specific marker of apoptosis in keratinocytes. We conclude that in vivo and in culture keratinocyte terminal differentiation and apoptosis are distinct cellular events, subject to different stimuli.