After the initial discovery of intermediate filament (IF)-forming proteins in 1968, a decade would elapse before they were revealed to comprise a diverse group of proteins which undergo tissue-, developmental stage-, differentiation-, and context-dependent regulation. Our appreciation for just how large (n = 70), conserved, complex, and dynamic IF genes and proteins are became even sharper upon completion of the human genome project. While there has been extraordinary progress in understanding the multimodal roles of IFs in cells and tissues, even revealing them as direct causative agents in a broad array of human genetic disorders, the link between individual IFs and cell differentiation has remained elusive. Here, we review evidence that demonstrates a role for IFs in lineage determination, cell differentiation, and tissue homeostasis. A major theme in this review is the function of IFs as sensors and transducers of mechanical forces, intersecting microenvironmental cues and fundamental processes through cellular redox balance.
Keywords: Cell determination; Differentiation; Disulfides; Extracellular matrix; Hippo; Intermediate filament; Keratin; Mechanosensing; Mechanotransduction; Notch; Nuclear lamins; Redox.
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