Occludin and several proteins of the claudin family have been identiried in simple epithelia and in endothelia as major and structure-determining transmembrane proteins clustered in the barrier-forming tight junctions (TJ), where they are associated with a variety of TJ plaque proteins, including protein ZO-1. To examine whether TJ also occur in the squamous stratified epithelium of the interfollicular human epidermis we have applied several microscopic and biochemical techniques. Using RT-PCR techniques, we have identiried mRNAs encoding protein ZO-1, occludin and claudins 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, and 17 in both tissues, skin and cultured keratinocytes, whereas claudins i and 10 have only been detected in skin tissue. By immunocytochemistry we have localized claudin-1, occludin and protein ZO-1 in distinct plasma membrane structures representing cell-cell attachment zones. While claudin-1 occurs in plasma membranes of all living cell layers, protein ZO-1 is concentrated in or even restricted to the uppermost layers, and occludin is often detected only in the stratum granulosum. Using electron microscopy, typical TJ structures ("kissing points") as well as some other apparently related junctional structures have been detected in the stratum granulosum, interspersed between desmosomes. Modes and patterns of TJ formation have also been studied in experimental model systems, e.g., during wound healing and stratification as well as in keratinocyte cultures during Ca2+-induced stratification. We conclude that the epidermis contains in the stratum granulosum a continuous zonula occludens-equivalent structure with typical TJ morphology and molecular composition, characterized by colocalization of occludin, claudins and TJ plaque proteins. In addition, cell-cell contact structures and certain TJ proteins can also be detected in other epidermal cell layers in specific cell contacts. The pattern of formation and possible functions of epidermal TJ and related structures are discussed.