The skin is essential for survival and protects our body against biological attacks, physical stress, chemical injury, water loss, ultraviolet radiation and immunological impairment. The epidermal barrier constitutes the primordial frontline of this defense established during terminal differentiation. During this complex process proliferating basal keratinocytes become suprabasally mitotically inactive and move through four epidermal layers (basal, spinous, granular and layer, stratum corneum) constantly adapting to the needs of the respective cell layer. As a result, squamous keratinocytes contain polymerized keratin intermediate filament bundles and a water-retaining matrix surrounded by the cross-linked cornified cell envelope (CE) with ceramide lipids attached on the outer surface. These cells are concomitantly insulated by intercellular lipid lamellae and hold together by corneodesmosmes. Many proteins essential for epidermal differentiation are encoded by genes clustered on chromosomal human region 1q21. These genes constitute the 'epidermal differentiation complex' (EDC), which is divided on the basis of common gene and protein structures, in three gene families: (i) CE precursors, (ii) S100A and (iii) S100 fused genes. EDC protein expression is regulated in a gene and tissue-specific manner by a pool of transcription factors. Among them, Klf4, Grhl3 and Arnt are essential, and their deletion in mice is lethal. The importance of the EDC is further reflected by human diseases: FLG mutations are the strongest risk factor for atopic dermatitis (AD) and for AD-associated asthma, and faulty CE formation caused by TG1 deficiency causes life-threatening lamellar ichthyosis. Here, we review the EDC genes and the progress in this field.
© 2012 John Wiley & Sons A/S.