Int. J. Dev. Biol. 58: 829 - 839 (2014)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.140325la
© UPV/EHU Press

Transition from embryonic to adult epidermis in reptiles occurs by the production of corneous beta-proteins

Lorenzo Alibardi*

Comparative Histolab and Dipartimento Bigea, University of Bologna, Italy

ABSTRACT The adaptation of the epidermis in amniote vertebrates to life on land took place by a drastic change from an embryonic epidermis made of two-four periderm layers to a terrestrial-proof epidermis. This transition occurred by the increase in types and number of specialized corneous proteins coded by genes of the Epidermal Differentiation Complex. The prevalent types of corneous proteins produced in the reptilian epidermis contain a beta-sheet region of high amino acid homology which allows their polymerization into a meshwork of filaments forming the hard corneous material of scales and claws. The present immunogold ultrastructural study shows that this transition occurs with the synthesis of glycine-rich corneous beta-proteins (formerly indicated as beta-keratins) that are added to the initial framework of acidic intermediate filaments produced in the embryonic epidermis of lizards, snake, alligator and turtle. These corneous beta-proteins are accumulated in the transitional and definitive layers of reptilian epidermis formed underneath the transitory two-four layered embryonic epidermis. In the more specialized reptiles capable of shedding the epidermis as a single unit, such as lizards and snakes, special glycine-cysteine rich beta-proteins are initially produced in a single layer immediately formed beneath the embryonic epidermis, the oberhautchen. The latter layer allows the in ovo shedding of the embryonic epidermis in preparation for hatching, and in the following shedding cycles of the adult epidermis. The production of specialized corneous-specific beta-proteins in addition to intermediate filament keratins was probably an essential addition for terrestrial life during the evolution of reptiles into different lineages, including birds. The increase of glycine and cysteine in epidermal proteins enhanced the hydrophobicity, insolubility and mechanical strength of the stratum corneum in these amniotes.


reptiles, embryos, acidic keratins, corneous beta-proteins, immunocytochemistry

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