Epithelial structural proteins of the skin and oral cavity: function in health and disease

Crit Rev Oral Biol Med. 2000;11(4):383-408. doi: 10.1177/10454411000110040101.


Epithelial tissues function to protect the organism from physical, chemical, and microbial damage and are essential for survival. To perform this role, epithelial keratinocytes undergo a well-defined differentiation program that results in the expression of structural proteins which maintain the integrity of epithelial tissues and function as a protective barrier. This review focuses on structural proteins of the epidermis and oral mucosa. Keratin proteins comprise the predominant cytoskeletal component of these epithelia. Keratin filaments are attached to the plasma membrane via desmosomes, and together these structural components form a three-dimensional array within the cytoplasm of epithelial cells and tissues. Desmosomes contain two types of transmembrane proteins, the desmogleins and desmocollins, that are members of the cadherin family. The desmosomal cadherins are linked to the keratin cytoskeleton via several cytoplasmic plaque proteins, including desmoplakin and plakoglobin (gamma-catenin). Epidermal and oral keratinocytes express additional differentiation markers, including filaggrin and trichohyalin, that associate with the keratin cytoskeleton during terminal differentiation, and proteins such as loricrin, small proline-rich proteins, and involucrin, that are cross-linked into the cornified envelope by transglutaminase enzymes. The importance of these cellular structures is highlighted by the large numbers of genetic and acquired (autoimmune) human disorders that involve mutations in, or autoantibodies to, keratins and desmosomal and cornified envelope proteins. While much progress has been made in the identification of the structural proteins and enzymes involved in epithelial differentiation, regulation of this process is less clear. Both calcium and retinoids influence epithelial differentiation by altering the transcription of target genes and by regulating activity of enzymes critical in epithelial differentiation, such as transglutaminases, proteinases, and protein kinases. These studies have furthered our understanding of how epithelial tissue and cell integrity is maintained and provide a basis for the future treatment of skin and oral disorders by gene therapy and other novel therapeutics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins / genetics
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins / physiology*
  • Desmosomes / chemistry*
  • Epidermis / chemistry*
  • Epithelial Cells / chemistry*
  • Extracellular Matrix Proteins / physiology
  • Filaggrin Proteins
  • Humans
  • Keratinocytes / chemistry
  • Keratins / genetics
  • Keratins / physiology
  • Membrane Proteins / physiology
  • Mice
  • Mouth Mucosa / chemistry*
  • Protein Precursors / physiology
  • Skin Diseases, Genetic / genetics


  • Cytoskeletal Proteins
  • Extracellular Matrix Proteins
  • FLG protein, human
  • Filaggrin Proteins
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Protein Precursors
  • Keratins