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Members of the superfamily of nuclear hormone receptors which are obligate heterodimeric partners of the retinoid X receptor may be important in epidermal development. Here, we examined the effects of activators of the receptors for vitamin D3 and retinoids, and of the peroxisome proliferator activated receptors (PPARs) and the farnesoid X-activated receptor (FXR), on the development of the fetal epidermal barrier in vitro. Skin explants from gestational day 17 rats (term is 22 d) are unstratified and lack a stratum corneum (SC). After incubation in hormone-free media for 3-4 d, a multilayered SC replete with mature lamellar membranes in the interstices and a functionally competent barrier appear. 9-cis or all-trans retinoic acid, 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D3, or the PPARgamma ligands prostaglandin J2 or troglitazone did not affect the development of barrier function or epidermal morphology. In contrast, activators of the PPARalpha, oleic acid, linoleic acid, and clofibrate, accelerated epidermal development, resulting in mature lamellar membranes, a multilayered SC, and a competent barrier after 2 d of incubation. The FXR activators, all-trans farnesol and juvenile hormone III, also accelerated epidermal barrier development. Activities of beta-glucocerebrosidase and steroid sulfatase, enzymes previously linked to barrier maturation, also increased after treatment with PPARalpha and FXR activators. In contrast, isoprenoids, such as nerolidol, cis-farnesol, or geranylgeraniol, or metabolites in the cholesterol pathway, such as mevalonate, squalene, or 25-hydroxycholesterol, did not alter barrier development. Finally, additive effects were observed in explants incubated with clofibrate and farnesol together in suboptimal concentrations which alone did not affect barrier development. These data indicate a putative physiologic role for PPARalpha and FXR in epidermal barrier development.