, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 149-157

Tiers of Clonal Organization in the Epidermis: The Epidermal Proliferation Unit Revisited

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Abstract

As one of the most proliferative tissues in adult mammals, the epidermis is a good example of the precise regulation necessary between stem cell self-renewal and differentiation. The epidermis is derived from ectodermal progenitor cells and contains three distinct classes of cells: epidermal stem cells which are capable of infinite rounds of cell division; their immediate descendants, transient amplifying cells, which are capable of numerous but finite rounds of cell division; and finally, non-dividing, differentiating cells (Aberdam in Cell and Tissue Research 331:103–107, 2008). This proliferative hierarchy must be tightly regulated both temporally and spatially during epidermal development and homeostasis in order to prevent uncontrolled growth leading to hyperproliferative states and/or tumorigenesis. Historically, the most basic unit of epidermal proliferation has been described as the epidermal proliferation unit (EPU). The EPU, as originally characterized by Christophers, Potten and Mackenzie, is a proliferation unit consisting of approximately 10 basal cells with a clonogenic cell in the center and overlaid by the suprabasal and corneocyte progeny (reviewed in Potten, C. S. (1974). The epidermal proliferative unit: the possible role of the central basal cell. Cell and Tissue Kinetics, 7(1), 77–88). Numerous researchers have identified this classical EPU structure, consisting of approximately 20 cells, in a variety of mammalian skin sources. Recently however, lineage analyses have provided evidence for much larger clonal epidermal units consisting of hundreds to thousands of cells. Furthermore, cutaneous mosaicism as well as a variety of cutaneous pathologies indicate that clonal areas extend to whole patches of mammalian skin many centimeters across. In this review we revisit four decades of experimental evidence and put forward a model of clonal units derived from multiple classes of epidermal progenitors ranging from the largest and most primitive units, clonal ectodermal units, to epidermal stem cell units, and finally, to the most basic structural unit, the EPU.