Mutations in keratin genes give rise to a number of inherited skin fragility disorders, demonstrating that the intermediate filament cytoskeleton has an essential function in maintaining the structural integrity of epidermis and its appendages. Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) is an autosomal dominant disorder caused by mutations in keratins K5 or K14, which are expressed in the basal layer of stratified epithelia. Using a keratinocyte cell line established from an EBS patient, we investigated whether the muscle-specific intermediate filament protein desmin would be able to functionally complement a mutant keratin 14 in cultured keratinocytes. We show that in stably transfected EBS cells, desmin forms an extended keratin-independent cytoskeleton. Immunogold-EM analysis demonstrated that in the presence of numerous keratin filaments attached to desmosomes, desmin could nevertheless interact with desmosomes in the same cell, indicating the dynamic nature of the filament-desmosome association. When desmin-transfected cells were subjected to heat shock, the mutant keratin filaments showed a transient collapse while desmin filaments were maintained. Thus the defective keratin filaments and the wild-type desmin filaments appear to coexist in cells without interference. Expression of a type III intermediate filament protein like desmin may offer a strategy for the treatment of patients suffering from epidermal keratin mutations.

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