Hereditary 'white nails': a genetic and structural study

Br J Dermatol. 2004 Jul;151(1):65-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2004.05994.x.


Background: Hereditary subtotal leuconychia is a rare nail disease. The gene(s) underlying this phenotype is (are) not known. Immunohistochemical and ultrastructural studies of nails are performed infrequently.

Objectives: To perform genetic linkage analysis and to assess ultrastructure and soft/hard keratin expression in hereditary white nails.

Methods: We have analysed microscopically and ultrastructurally the white nails of a patient from a family in which the trait is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner as an isolated symptom. No skin lesions or hair abnormalities could be detected. Genetic linkage studies were performed on DNA samples obtained from several members of the affected family. A longitudinal surgical biopsy of the nail from a great toe was split in two parts. One part was fixed in formalin and processed for histopathology. Another part was further subdivided and embedded either in Epon, following fixation in 2% glutaraldehyde, or in Lowicryl K4M, after fixation in 3% paraformaldehyde. Dewaxed nail sections and Lowicryl ultrathin sections were also stained with various antikeratin antibodies.

Results: Genetic linkage studies of the family pointed to the disease gene mapping to the chromosomal 12q13 region. Genes mapping within this chromosomal region include the genes coding for type II (basic) cytokeratins and hard keratins. The nail matrix presented an abnormal hypergranulosis. The upper part of the nail plate, originating from the proximal nail matrix, had a nonhomogeneous lamellar appearance, with numerous intracellular 'lipidic' vacuoles and 'empty' spaces separating keratin filament bundles. These cells were progressively shed at the nail surface. The cell loss was compensated by hyperproliferation of the distal matrix and of the nail bed keratinocytes, with persistent marked parakeratosis and loose arrangement of keratin bundles. The distal matrix and the nail bed contributed equally to formation of the lower plate. This presented the characteristics of a tissue composed of soft keratins. Accordingly, there was virtually no labelling with the Hb1 antibody to a basic hard keratin in the white nail, whereas the labelling with AE3 antibody to all type II keratins and with KL1 recognizing suprabasal soft keratins was normal or even enhanced.

Conclusions: Genetic linkage indicates that the gene defect underlying the leuconychia in the family studied resides on chromosome 12q13. As the type II keratins map within this chromosomal interval, it is possible that a mutation in one of these keratin genes may be a cause of the hereditary leuconychia. The white appearance of nails in this disease seems to be due to an abnormal keratinization of cells originating from the proximal nail matrix, leading to the presence of abundant intracellular vacuoles and to a lesser compactness of keratins.

MeSH terms

  • Chromosome Mapping
  • Chromosomes, Human, Pair 13*
  • Female
  • Genes, Dominant
  • Humans
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Immunoelectron
  • Nail Diseases / genetics*
  • Nail Diseases / metabolism
  • Nail Diseases / pathology
  • Nails / chemistry
  • Nails / ultrastructure
  • Pedigree
  • Pigmentation Disorders / genetics*
  • Pigmentation Disorders / metabolism
  • Pigmentation Disorders / pathology


  • Keratins