Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Exp Dermatol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 October 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3477265

Tight Junction Properties Change During Epidermis Development


In terrestrial animals, the epidermal barrier transitions from covering an organism suspended in a liquid environment in utero, to protecting a terrestrial animal postnatally from air and environmental exposure. Tight junctions (TJ) are essential for establishing the epidermal permeability barrier during embryonic development, and modulate normal epidermal development and barrier functions postnatally. We now report that TJ function, as well as claudin-1 and occludin expression, change in parallel during late epidermal development. Specifically, TJ block the paracellular movement of Lanthanum (La3+) early in rat in vivo prenatal epidermal development, at gestational days 18–19, with concurrent upregulation of claudin-1 and occludin. TJ then become more permeable to ions and water as the fetus approaches parturition, concomitant with development of the lipid epidermal permeability barrier, at days 20–21. This sequence is recapitulated in cultured human epidermal equivalents (HEE), as assessed both by ultrastructural studies comparing permeation of large and small molecules, and by the standard electrophysiologic parameter of resistance (R), suggesting further that this pattern of development is intrinsic to mammalian epidermal development. These findings demonstrate that the role of TJ changes during epidermal development, and further suggest that the TJ-based and lipid-based epidermal permeability barriers are interdependent.

Keywords: Epidermal Development, Tight Junction, Epidermal Permeability Barrier, Transepithelial Resistance


Epidermis must transition from a prenatal epithelium in which regulated water and ion flux may be beneficial, to a postnatal epidermis that must provide an essentially impermeable barrier to water, ions and toxins or bacteria. Defective epidermal permeability function is devastating, especially for premature infants (<33 wks gestation), whose skin cannot yet protect against water, calorie and electrolyte loss (Hammarlund and Sedin, 1979; Harpin and Rutter, 1983) or sepsis due to microbial invasion (Marcoux et al., 2009)

The relative roles of Tight Junctions (TJ) and the lipid-based barrier in maintaining the epidermal permeability barrier has been the subject of recent intense interest (O’Neill and Garrod, 2011), with some studies supporting a primary role for the lipid based barrier in post-natal epidermis (Behne et al., 2003a; Behne et al., 2003b; Elias and Feingold, 1988; Elias et al., 1978; Elias et al., 1977; Elias et al., 1988; Elias et al., 1998; Fluhr et al., 2004a; Fluhr et al., 2004b; Holleran et al., 1993; Holleran et al., 2006; Proksch et al., 1991), while others show that TJ are essential for perinatal survival and normal epidermal function (Brandner, 2002; Furuse et al., 2002; Morita et al., 1998; Pummi et al., 2001; Troy et al., 2007a; Troy et al., 2007b; Turksen and Troy, 2002; Vockel et al., 2010).


We hypothesized that TJ form the major water and ion barrier early in development, and that this function changes when the lipid barrier is established. Further, we hypothesized that the barrier function of TJ would change during development, blocking water and ions early, but only larger molecules once the lipid barrier was in place.


Rat fetuses were harvested from day 17 to day 22 of gestation. Cell culture, immunoblotting, electron microscopy, light and confocal microscopy were performed using standard methods (see Supporting Information).


TJ Expression and Function Change During Rat Embryonic Development

Mirroring mice and humans (Cartlidge, 2000), the rat epidermal lipid-based barrier consistently develops late in rat gestation, around gestational day 20–21 (rats are born gestational day 22) (Aszterbaum et al., 1992; Hanley et al., 1996). Relative Claudin-1 and occludin protein expression levels peaked at day 18/19, then decreased at days 20–21 (Fig 1A), the period during which the lipid barrier is established (Hanley et al., 1996). La3+, an electron dense element with a hydrated radius (0.4 nm) similar to that of Na+ (0.3 nm), was blocked at sites of TJ in the SG at day 18 (Fig 1B and Supplemental information (SI) figures 1A and B) but permeated through TJ sites in the SG and was blocked instead at the location of the epidermal lipid barrier, at the base of the SC, after the lipid-based permeability barrier was formed postnatally (Fig 1C and SI figure 1D). Secreted lipid processed into bilayers was noted in postnatal epidermis (Hanley et al. 1996), denoting a functional lipid barrier in this epidermis. These experiments demonstrate that TJ were able to block ion and water flux through the epidermis transiently in utero, but lost this ability late in gestation. Conversely, a lipid-based barrier was not formed early in gestation, but developed late in gestation and was able to block ion and water flux postnatally.

Figure 1
Tight Junction Formation in in Vivo Rat Fetal Development

TJ Changes Are Recapitulated in a Human Epidermal Equivalent Model (HEE)

HEE are useful models of epidermal differentiation, as they reproduce both the epidermal differentiation and the lipid barrier seen in skin, and can be used for electrical measurements, because they do not contain hair follicles, eccrine glands or dermis.

Morphology and TJ protein expression was similar in HEE and rat fetal epidermis, with development of a functional lipid-based barrier by 11–12 days (SI Figure 2). EM micrographs revealed structures typical of tight junctional complexes in cultures at days 5–6 (SI figure 3). La3+ perfusion was blocked at TJ sites in the SG at days 5–6 (SI figure 2C and SI figure 3), when relative claudin-1 and occludin expression was high (SI Fig 2 B), corresponding with days 18–19 in rat skin. Likewise, La3+ permeated through these sites and was instead blocked at the SG/SC interface by the lipid barrier at day 11 (SI Fig 2 F and SI figure 4), as seen in postnatal rat skin (compare to Fig 1C). Because La3+ permeation cannot measure the global permeability barrier function of the epidermis, we additionally measured electrical parameters (De Benedetto et al., 2010). Transepithelial resistance (TER) peaked at day 7 (Fig 2), when La3+ permeation was blocked at TJ sites (SI Fig 2 C). TER dropped precipitously until day 9, corresponding to decreases in occludin expression. However, TER then peaked again at day 10–11 (Fig 2), correlating with the development of a SC, secreted and processed lipid, and a competent lipid-based barrier that blocked La3+ permeation at the SC/SG interface (SI Fig 2G).

Figure 2
Transepithelial Resistence measurements in Developing HEE

TJ Block Paracellular Movement of Macromolecules Later in Development

TJ have been noted to block larger molecules, such as biotin, in postnatal epidermis (Kirschner et al., 2010). HEE impeded passage of biotin at TJ sites, even as they no longer blocked La3+ flux (SI Fig 5). These experiments suggest that TJ function changes as the epidermis matures. The evolution of TJ permeability likely corresponds to different physiologic requirements for TJ’s at various stages of epidermal development.


TJ are essential for establishing the epidermal permeability barrier during embryonic development, and modulate normal epidermal development and barrier functions postnatally. TJ block the paracellular movement of Lanthanum (La3+) early in rat in vivo prenatal epidermal development and early in HEE differentiation, concurrent with upregulation of claudin and occludin. TJ then become more permeable to ions and water as the lipid epidermal permeability barrier develops. However, TJ continue to block paracellular access by large molecules, even though they become permeable to ions, suggesting an important role for these structures in postnatal epidermis. These findings demonstrate that the role of TJ changes during epidermal development, and further suggest that the TJ-based and lipid-based epidermal permeability barriers are interdependent.



Timed-pregnant Sprague–Dawley rats (plug date = day 0) were obtained from Simonsen Laboratories (Gilroy, CA). Rat fetuses were harvested from day 17 to day 22 of gestation, after anesthetizing and sacrificing maternal animals, according to an SFVAMC IACUC-approved protocol. Separate maternal animals were used for each day. Postnatal rat pups (day 1–4) were used as controls.

Electron Microscopy

Electron microscopy and lanthanum permeation were performed using the methods outlined in (Schmuth et al., 2001). Briefly, rat skin samples or human lifted culture samples to be used for electron microscopy were fixed in modified Karnovsky’s solution. The basal (dermal) side of half of these samples were exposed to 4% lanthanum nitrate in 0.05 M Tris buffer (Sigma Aldrich, Saint Luis, MO) containing 2% glutaraldehyde, 1% paraformaldehyde, pH 7.4, for 1 h at room temperature, to assess lanthanum permeation. The other half of the paired samples were prefixed in half-strength Karnovsky’s fixative, followed by postfixation in 1% OsO4, to assess morphology. After postfixation, all samples were dehydrated in a graded ethanol/propylene oxide series, and embedded in an Epon-epoxy mixture. Ultrathin sections were collected and assessed either unstained or after further lead citrate contrasting in a Zeiss 10 A (Carl Zeiss Inc., NY) electron microscope operated at 60 kV.


Cell culture and heat separated epidermis samples were homogenized, and proteins were isolated using RIPA buffer (Sigma-Aldrich, Saint Luis, MO) containing protease inhibitors (Roche Applied Science, Indianapolis, IN). Protein quantification for equal loading was made with Thermo Scientific Pierce’s BCA assay kit. SDS-PAGE and transfer was performed using NuPAGE Novex 4–12% sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gels and nitrocellulose membranes according to Invitrogen’s NuPAGE protocol. Membranes were blocked in PBS with 5% non-fat dry milk and 0.05% Tween-20 and incubated with the following primary antibodies and dilutions: Claudin 1, polyclonal antibody (Invitrogen by Life Thecnologies, Carlsbad, CA) used at 1:1000 dilution with an anti-rabbit secondary antibody used at 1:2000; Occludin, monoclonal HRP-lined antibody (Invitrogen by Life Thecnologies, Carlsbad, CA), used at a dilution of 1:1000. Chemiluminescent detection was performed with ECL Plus detection reagent (Thermo Scientific Pierce, Walthman, MA) using the Fujifilm LAS-3000 imaging system. β-Actin was used as a control.

Epidermal Skin Equivalents

Epidermal skin equivalents (HEE) were prepared by seeding 500 μL of a 106human keratinocytes/ml in CNT-07 (CELLnTEC, Bern, Switzerland) on 12 well Millicell hanging 0.4 μm PET inserts (Millipore, Billerica, MA). Inserts were precoated with CellStart (Invitrogen by Life Thecnologies, Carlsbad, CA) in a 50X DPBS dilution. 1ml CNT 07 (CELLnTEC, Bern, Switzerland) was added to the well. 72 hours after seeding (day 3) the media was switched to the differentiation media CNT 02 3D (CELLnTEC, Bern, Switzerland) both on the inside and outside of the insert. Cultures were submerged in differentiation media for 16 hours and then lifted to the air media interface by removing the excess media from inside the Millicel insert and lowering the volume of the differentiation media on the outside to 500 μl. Cultures were fed every day with 500 μl of differentiation media until harvested. The Declaration of Helsinki protocols were followed, and the protocol was approved by the UCSF-SFVAMC Committee on Human Research.

Light Microscopy

Samples of lifted cultures were harvested and halved for light and electron microscopy (see below). Samples for light microscopy were fixed in 5% formaldehyde. Epon-embedded, and 5 μm sections were stained by hematoxylin/eosin.


TER measurements were compared in HEE from day 3 to day 11 after the cells were plated. Cultures were lifted on day 4. Transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) of the epidermal equivalent was measured using an ohmmeter (EVOM; World Precision Instruments, Sarasota, FL). Measurements were performed taking care of having the same volume of culture medium in the transwell and in the outside well everytime. 1 ml culture media was placed in the outside well and 500 ul culture medium was added to the transwel prior to each measurement.

Biotin permeation

EZ-Link Sulfo-NHS-LC-Biotin No Weigh Format Mw:556.59 g/mole (Thermo Scientific, Rockford, Il) was added to DPBS in a final concentration of 1mg/ml. 3D skin equivalents (SE) were cultured for 11 days, excised from insert and placed lifted side up on a 50 ml drop of biotin solution for 30 minutes. SEs then were submerged in OCT medium and snap frozen in liquid nitrogen. 5um frozen sections were cut on a cryostat (Leika, Germany), and counterstained with streptavidin-DyLite 633 (Thermo Fisher, Rockford, IL) in a 1:1000 dilution. Confocal images were acquired on a Zeiss 510 meta microscope (Carl Zeiss Microimaging Inc., Thornwood, NY) using a 20X air objective and an optical slice of 2μm.

Supplementary Material

Supp Figure S1

Supporting Information Figure 1. Tight Junction Formation in Vivo Rat Fetal Development:

A and B) Lanthanum permeation assays show that the perfusion of the water soluble tracer is stopped at the SG in prenatal rats (day 18). C: morphological analysis using reduced osmium shows points of tight contacts (kissing points) between granular cells in prenatal rats (day 18). D: lanthanum perfusion in post natal rat (one day old) shows incompetent tight junctions as lanthanum perfuses past tight junction sites into the SC.

Supp Figure S2

Supporting Information Figure 2. Tight Junction Formation in Developing HEE:

A) Culture Morphology. Morphological development of HHE stained with Hematoxilin/Eosin. Monolayer cultures at day 4 become multilayered by day 6. A SC starts to form at day 7 (arrow), and is fully formed by day 11. B) TJ protein expression during HHE development. Western blots demonstrate that Claudin1 protein levels are relatively constant, while occludin expression levels peak at day 5/6 after plating. C) La3+ permeation at day 6. La3+ permeates the viable epidermis until its diffusion is blocked at the lateral borders of SG cells, sites of likely TJ (arrow). D) Higher magnification of sites where La +3 is blocked reveal the characteristic tapering points seen at TJ (arrow). E) Lamellar bodies are visible in the granular cells, although fully formed lipid bilayers are not yet seen. F) La3+ permeation at day 11. In contrast to panel C, La3+ permeation is not blocked at the SG but at the SG/SC interface (arrows). G) Lipids are processed into normal bilayers at day 11, denoting lipid barrier formation.

Supp Figure S3

Supporting Information Figure 3. Lanthanum perfusion in developing HHE:

Additional images showing that lanthanum perfusion stops before reaching the SC/SG interface in day 6 cultures (white arrows).

Supp Figure S4

Supporting Information Figure 4. Lanthanum perfusion in mature HHE:

Additional images showing lanthanum perfusion through the SG/SC interface in day 11 cell cultures

Supp Figure S5

Supporting Information Figure 5. TJ impede biotin permeation in fully developed HEE:

Biotin was applied to the basal surface of day 11 HEE. A) Fluorescence image. B) Fluorescence image superimposed on transmitted image. The arrows indicate points in which biotin permeation is halted between SG cells. The location and morphology are characteristic of TJ sites. No biotin is observed at the SG/SC interface.

Supp Figure S6

Supporting Information Figure 6. Kissing points and TJ structures are present in Day6 Lifted Cultures:

EM micrograph showing kissing points (white arrow) and TJ structures between adjacent granular cells in 6 days old lifted cultures.

Supp Figure S7

Supporting Information Figure 7. Kissing points and TJ structures are present in Day6 Lifted Cultures:

EM micrograph showing kissing points (white arrow) and TJ structures between adjacent granular cells in 6 days old lifted cultures.


We gratefully acknowledge the superb editorial assistance of Ms Joan Wakefield and Ms Jerelyn Magnusson. This work was supported by NIH grants AR051930 and R01AG028492 (TM) and the Research Service, Department of Veterans Affairs. These sponsors had no role in study design, in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; or in the decision to submit the paper for publication


Tight Junctions
Epithelial Sodium Channel
Stratum Corneum
Transepithelial Resistance
Stratum Granulosum
Human Epidermal Equivalents
Transepidermal Water Loss


Celli A.: Performed research, designed experiments, analyzed data, wrote manuscript

Zhai Y.: Performed research, designed experiments, analyzed data

Jiang YJ: Performed research

Crumrine D: Performed research, analyzed data

Elias PM: designed research, analyzed data, wrote manuscript

Feingold KR: designed experiments, provided reagents

Mauro TM: designed experiments, analyzed data, wrote manuscript


  • Aszterbaum M, Menon GK, Feingold KR, Williams ML. Ontogeny of the epidermal barrier to water loss in the rat: correlation of function with stratum corneum structure and lipid content. Pediatr Res. 1992;31:308–317. [PubMed]
  • Behne MJ, Barry NP, Hanson KM, Aronchik I, Clegg RW, Gratton E, Feingold K, Holleran WM, Elias PM, Mauro TM. Neonatal development of the stratum corneum pH gradient: localization and mechanisms leading to emergence of optimal barrier function. J Invest Dermatol. 2003a;120:998–1006. [PubMed]
  • Behne MJ, Tu CL, Aronchik I, Epstein E, Bench G, Bikle DD, Pozzan T, Mauro TM. Human keratinocyte ATP2C1 localizes to the Golgi and controls Golgi Ca2+ stores. J Invest Dermatol. 2003b;121:688–694. [PubMed]
  • Brandner JM, Kief S, Grund C, Rendl M, Houdek P, Kuhn C, Tschachlerc E, Franke WW, Moll I. Organization and formation of the tight junction system in human epidermis and cultured keratinocytes. European Journal of Cell Biology. 2002;81:253–263. [PubMed]
  • Cartlidge P. The epidermal barrier. Semin Neonatol. 2000 Nov;5(4):273–80. [PubMed]
  • De Benedetto A, Rafaels NM, McGirt LY, Ivanov AI, Georas SN, Cheadle C, Berger AE, Zhang K, Vidyasagar S, Yoshida T, Boguniewicz M, Hata T, Schneider LC, Hanifin JM, Gallo RL, Novak N, Weidinger S, Beaty TH, Leung DY, Barnes KC, Beck LA. Tight junction defects in patients with atopic dermatitis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;127:773–786 e777. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Elias PM, Feingold KR. Lipid-related barriers and gradients in the epidermis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1988;548:4–13. [PubMed]
  • Elias PM, Goerke J, Friend DS, Brown BE. Freeze-fracture identification of sterol-digitonin complexes in cell and liposome membranes. J Cell Biol. 1978;78:577–596. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Elias PM, McNutt NS, Friend DS. Membrane alterations during cornification of mammalian squamous epithelia: a freeze-fracture, tracer, and thin-section study. Anat Rec. 1977;189:577–594. [PubMed]
  • Elias PM, Menon GK, Grayson S, Brown BE. Membrane structural alterations in murine stratum corneum: relationship to the localization of polar lipids and phospholipases. J Invest Dermatol. 1988;91:3–10. [PubMed]
  • Elias PM, Nau P, Hanley K, Cullander C, Crumrine D, Bench G, Sideras-Haddad E, Mauro T, Williams ML, Feingold KR. Formation of the epidermal calcium gradient coincides with key milestones of barrier ontogenesis in the rodent. J Invest Dermatol. 1998;110:399–404. [PubMed]
  • Fluhr J, Behne M, Brown BE, Moskowitz DG, Selden C, Mao-Qiang M, Mauro T, Elias PM, Feingold K. Stratum corneum acidification in neonatal skin: Secretory phospholipase A2 and the sodium/hydrogen antiporter-1 acidify neonatal rat stratum corneum. J Invest Dermatol. 2004a;122:320–329. [PubMed]
  • Fluhr JW, Mao-Qiang M, Brown BE, Hachem JP, Moskowitz DG, Demerjian M, Haftek M, Serre G, Crumrine D, Mauro TM, Elias PM, Feingold KR. Functional consequences of a neutral pH in neonatal rat stratum corneum. J Invest Dermatol. 2004b;123:140–151. [PubMed]
  • Furuse M, Hata M, Furuse K, Yoshida Y, Haratake A, Sugitani Y, Noda T, Kubo A, Tsukita S. Claudin-based tight junctions are crucial for the mammalian epidermal barrier: a lesson from claudin-1-deficient mice. J Cell Biol. 2002;156:1099–1111. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Hammarlund K, Sedin G. Transepidermal water loss in newborn infants. III. Relation to gestational age. Acta Paediatr Scand. 1979;68:795–801. [PubMed]
  • Hanley K, Rassner U, Elias PM, Williams ML, Feingold KR. Epidermal barrier ontogenesis: maturation in serum-free media and acceleration by glucocorticoids and thyroid hormone but not selected growth factors. J Invest Dermatol. 1996;106:404–411. [PubMed]
  • Harpin VA, Rutter N. Barrier properties of the newborn infant’s skin. J Pediatr. 1983;102:419–425. [PubMed]
  • Holleran WM, Takagi Y, Menon GK, Legler G, Feingold KR, Elias PM. Processing of epidermal glucosylceramides is required for optimal mammalian cutaneous permeability barrier function. J Clin Invest. 1993;91:1656–1664. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Holleran WM, Takagi Y, Uchida Y. Epidermal sphingolipids: metabolism, function, and roles in skin disorders. FEBS Lett. 2006;580:5456–5466. [PubMed]
  • Kirschner N, Houdek P, Fromm M, Moll I, Brandner JM. Tight junctions form a barrier in human epidermis. Eur J Cell Biol. 2010;89:839–842. [PubMed]
  • Langbein L, Grund K, Praetzel S, Kartenbeck J, Brandner JM, Moll I, Franke WW. Tight junctions and compositionally related junctional structures in mammalian stratified epithelia and cell cultures derived therefrom. Eur J Cell Biol. 2002;81:419–435. [PubMed]
  • Marcoux D, Jafarian F, Joncas V, Buteau C, Kokta V, Moghrabi A. Deep cutaneous fungal infections in immunocompromised children. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2009;61:857–864. [PubMed]
  • Morita K, Itoh M, Saitou M, Ando-Akatsuka Y, Furuse M, Yoneda K, Imamura S, Fujimoto K, Tsukita S. Subcellular distribution of tight junction-associated proteins (occludin, ZO-1, ZO-2) in rodent skin. J Invest Dermatol. 1998;110:862–866. [PubMed]
  • O’Neill CA, Garrod D. Tight junction proteins and the epidermis. Exp Dermatol. 2011;20(2):88–91. [PubMed]
  • Proksch E, Feingold KR, Man MQ, Elias PM. Barrier function regulates epidermal DNA synthesis. J Clin Invest. 1991;87:1668–1673. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Pummi K, Malminen M, Aho H, Karvonen SL, Peltonen J, Peltonen S. Epidermal tight junctions: ZO-1 and occludin are expressed in mature, developing, and affected skin and in vitro differentiating keratinocytes. J Invest Dermatol. 2001;117:1050–1058. [PubMed]
  • Schmuth M, Yosipovitch G, Williams ML, Weber F, Hintner H, Ortiz-Urda S, Rappersberger K, Crumrine D, Feingold KR, Elias PM. Pathogenesis of the permeability barrier abnormality in epidermolytic hyperkeratosis. J Invest Dermatol. 2001;117:837–847. [PubMed]
  • Troy TC, Arabzadeh A, Yerlikaya S, Turksen K. Claudin immunolocalization in neonatal mouse epithelial tissues. Cell Tissue Res. 2007a;330:381–388. [PubMed]
  • Troy TC, Li Y, O’Malley L, Turksen K. The temporal and spatial expression of Claudins in epidermal development and the accelerated program of epidermal differentiation in K14-CaSR transgenic mice. Gene Expr Patterns. 2007b;7:423–430. [PubMed]
  • Turksen K, Troy TC. Permeability barrier dysfunction in transgenic mice overexpressing claudin 6. Development. 2002;129:1775–1784. [PubMed]
  • Vockel M, Breitenbach U, Kreienkamp HJ, Brandner JM. Somatostatin regulates tight junction function and composition in human keratinocytes. Exp Dermatol. 2010;19:888–894. [PubMed]