Germinative epidermal cells in the lower end bulb region of anagen hair follicles are highly active, and give rise to hair fibres through rapid proliferation and complex differentiation. They have often been termed hair follicle stem cells, but owing to difficulties in isolation and identification their properties have previously only been clearly documented in vivo. We aimed to isolate and culture germinative cells in vitro, and used microdissection methods to dissect a small but identifiable group of cells from complete follicles. Transmission electron microscopy confirmed that the isolated cells were identical to germinative epidermal cells in situ. SDS-PAGE was used to show that they did not have the same protein composition as epidermis from their immediate proximity (overlying hair matrix), or from other follicular (outer root sheath) and interfollicular (skin basal) regions. Moreover, the germinative cells were found to display morphology and in vitro behaviour that distinguished them from comparative epidermal cells. When cultured in media and on substrata normally conducive to epidermal cell growth they remained in a quiescent state, and did not divide or differentiate. In contrast to other epidermal cells that formed typical pavement-like arrangements, germinative cells remained uniformly small, round and closely packed. However, when cultured in association with hair follicle dermal papilla cells they were radically stimulated into proliferative and aggregative behaviour. Furthermore, they were able to form organotypic-like structures, and exceptionally for skin-derived cell recombinations, a distinct basal lamina at the papilla-germinative cell junction. These results provide evidence that hair follicle germinative cells have intriguing properties that distinguish them from other follicular epidermis. The finding that they can be activated by dermal papilla cells reflects the intimate nature of the papilla-germinative cell relationship in situ, and should facilitate research into hair growth control mechanisms. The nature of germinative cells is discussed in the wider context of hair follicle stem-cell terminology.

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