Mechanotransduction in epidermal Merkel cells
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The cellular and molecular basis of vertebrate touch reception remains least understood among the traditional five senses. Somatosensory afferents that innervate the skin encode distinct tactile qualities, such as flutter, slip, and pressure. Gentle touch is thought to be transduced by somatosensory afferents whose tactile end organs selectively filter mechanical stimuli. These tactile end organs comprise afferent terminals in association with non-neuronal cell types such as Merkel cells, keratinocytes, and Schwann cells. An open question is whether these non-neuronal cells serve primarily as passive mechanical filters or whether they actively participate in mechanosensory transduction. This question has been most extensively studied in Merkel cells, which are epidermal cells that complex with sensory afferents in regions of high tactile acuity such as fingertips, whisker follicles, and touch domes. Merkel cell-neurite complexes mediate slowly adapting type I (SAI) responses, which encode sustained pressure and represent object features with high fidelity. How Merkel cells contribute to unique SAI firing patterns has been debated for decades; however, three recent studies in rodent models provide some direct answers. First, whole-cell recordings demonstrate that Merkel cells are touch-sensitive cells with fast, mechanically activated currents that require Piezo2. Second, optogenetics and intact recordings show that Merkel cells mediate sustained SAI firing. Finally, loss-of-function studies in transgenic mouse models reveal that SAI afferents are also touch sensitive. Together, these studies identify molecular mechanisms of mechanotransduction in Merkel cells, reveal unexpected functions for these cells in touch, and support a revised, two-receptor site model of mechanosensory transduction.
KeywordsTouch Piezo2 Mechanosensitive channels Mechanosensory cells Tactile
We thank Ms. Blair Jenkins for assistance with figures and members of the Lumpkin lab for discussions. The authors are supported by National Institutes of Health grants R01AR051219 (to EAL) and R01NS073119 (to EAL and Gregory J. Gerling), and fellowships to MN (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Research Fellowships for Young Scientists 24-7585) and SM (F32NS080544).
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