Irreversible growth arrest is an early and integral part of squamous cell differentiation in normal human epidermal keratinocytes (NHEKs) and is assumed to be linked to the control of expression of differentiation-specific genes. In this study, we examine the link between the molecular events associated with growth arrest and the expression of differentiation genes. NHEKs that have been induced to undergo growth arrest and differentiation by suspension culture contain populations in both G1 and G2/M of the cell cycle. The irreversible growth arrest state in NHEKs is characterized by an accumulation of the hypophosphorylated forms of Rb and p130, with subsequent down-regulation of levels of Rb, up-regulation of p130 and associated down-regulation of E2F-regulated genes such as cyclin A. These events correlate with an inhibition of G1 cdk activity, mediated in part by an increase in the cdk inhibitors p21(WAF1/Cip1), p27(Kip1) and p16(Ink4a). Flow cytometric and immunoblot analysis demonstrated that the timing of the up-regulation of p27, p16 and p130 corresponds closely with the induction of the squamous-specific genes cornifin alpha (SPRR-1) and transglutaminase type I, suggesting a close link between control of growth arrest and differentiation. However, growth arrest induced by over-expression of p27, p21 or p16 by recombinant adenovirus is not sufficient to induce expression of the differentiation genes, or to invoke the pattern of cell cycle regulatory protein expression characteristic of the differentiation-specific irreversible growth arrest. We conclude that growth arrest mediated by activation of the Rb pathway is not sufficient to trigger terminal squamous differentiation and additional signals which can be generated during suspension culture are required to promote the complete differentiation program.

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