Skin is a window on heritable disorders of connective tissue

Am J Med Genet. 1989 Sep;34(1):105-21. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.1320340118.


A skin biopsy contains the macromolecules present in most connective tissues: collagens, elastin, glycoproteins, and proteoglycans. The specific combination and assembly of these matrix components and their interactions with other structures (e.g., epidermal appendages, nerve and vascular networks) and cells are responsible for the distinction among specific regions of the dermis. The matrix components are interactive and interdependent and modification of one of them, by extrinsic (environmental) and/or intrinsic (systemic, genetic, age-related) factors, may have consequences on the tissue as a whole. The skin, therefore, provides a window through which it is possible to examine how mutations in one connective tissue macromolecule can change the interactions among matrix components and affect tissue structure and organization. Light and electron microscopic studies of skin from patients with inherited connective tissue disorders (e.g., Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, osteogenesis imperfecta, Marfan syndrome, cutis laxa) have led us to the following generalizations about what components change, how individual collagen or elastic fibers are altered and how individual alterations affect overall dermal organization: 1) There is a limited change in the repertoire of collagen fibrils in the skin; 2) there appears to be a greater range of abnormal structure in dermal elastic fibers than in the collagen fibrils; 3) the morphology of the fibroblastic cells may provide clues to the defect in matrix components; 4) similar structural abnormalities result from different molecular defect; 5) a molecular defect in one connective tissue molecule has consequences for the structural properties of other connective tissue components; and 6) although structural alterations in connective tissue fibers are rarely specific for a given disease, there are characteristic patterns of structural change in the matrix that may be used to confirm a diagnosis. These generalizations show that mutations rarely affect only a single aspect of macromolecular function and because of the interactions of matrix components in this complex organ (skin) often disturb the organization of the entire dermis. Genotype-phenotype relationships are important to understand if effective therapies are to be designed. The structure of skin should provide the next level of integration in our efforts to determine how mutations produce disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Collagen / analysis
  • Connective Tissue Diseases / genetics
  • Connective Tissue Diseases / pathology*
  • Elastin / analysis
  • Fibroblasts / pathology
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Skin / analysis
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Skin / ultrastructure


  • Collagen
  • Elastin