Multiple roles for keratin intermediate filaments in the regulation of epithelial barrier function and apico-basal polarity

Tissue Barriers. 2016 May 2;4(3):e1178368. doi: 10.1080/21688370.2016.1178368. eCollection Jul-Sep 2016.


As multicellular organisms evolved a family of cytoskeletal proteins, the keratins (types I and II) expressed in epithelial cells diversified in more than 20 genes in vertebrates. There is no question that keratin filaments confer mechanical stiffness to cells. However, such a number of genes can hardly be explained by evolutionary advantages in mechanical features. The use of transgenic mouse models has revealed unexpected functional relationships between keratin intermediate filaments and intracellular signaling. Accordingly, loss of keratins or mutations in keratins that cause or predispose to human diseases, result in increased sensitivity to apoptosis, regulation of innate immunity, permeabilization of tight junctions, and mistargeting of apical proteins in different epithelia. Precise mechanistic explanations for these phenomena are still lacking. However, immobilization of membrane or cytoplasmic proteins, including chaperones, on intermediate filaments ("scaffolding") appear as common molecular mechanisms and may explain the need for so many different keratin genes in vertebrates.

Keywords: 14-3-3; Akt; Hsp40; Hsp70; NF-kB; apoptosis; atypical PKC; cell signaling; cytokines; inflammation; innate immunity; tight junction.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis
  • Cell Polarity*
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / immunology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Keratins / chemistry
  • Keratins / genetics
  • Keratins / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Keratins