PURPOSE: Expression of the K3-K12 keratin pair characterizes the corneal epithelial differentiation. To elucidate the role of keratin 12 in the maintenance of corneal epithelium integrity, the authors bred mice deficient in keratin 12 by gene-targeting techniques. METHODS: One allele of murine Krt1.12 gene was ablated in the embryonic stem cell line, E14.1, by homologous recombination with a DNA construct in which the DNA element between intron 2 and exon 8 of the keratin 12 gene was replaced by a neo-gene. The homologous recombinant embryonic stem cells were injected to mouse blastocysts, and germ lines of chimeras were obtained. The corneas of heterozygous and homozygous mice were characterized by clinical observations using stereomicroscopy, histology with light and electron microscopy, Western immunoblot analysis, immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization, and Northern hybridization. RESULTS: The heterozygous mice (+/-) one allele of the Krt1.12 gene appear normal and do not develop any clinical manifestations (e.g., corneal epithelial defects). Homozygous mice (-/-) develop normally and suffer mild corneal epithelial erosion. Their corneal epithelia are fragile and can be removed by gentle rubbing of the eyes or brushing with a Microsponge. The corneal epithelium of the homozygote (-/-) does not express keratin 12 as judged by immunohistochemistry, Western immunoblot analysis with epitope-specific anti-keratin 12 antibodies, Northern hybridization with 32P-labeled keratin 12 cDNA, and in situ hybridization with an anti-sense keratin 12 riboprobe. Light and electron microscopy revealed subtle abnormalities in the corneal epithelia of -/- mice (i.e., a decrease in number of cell layers) and cytolysis of superficial cells, but the number of hemidesmosomes and desmosomes are normal in basal and suprabasal cells. The number of keratin intermediate filaments in basal and suprabasal corneal epithelial cells in -/- mice decreases, and they appear as dense bundles. This morphology is similar to that of keratin intermediate filaments in epidermal epithelial, cells but differs from that of normal corneal epithelial cells in which the keratins form fine filamentous networks. The superficial epithelial cells are devoid of keratin intermediate filaments and often detach from the corneal surface of -/- mice. CONCLUSIONS: The presence of cornea-specific K3-K12 keratin pairs is essential for the maintenance of corneal epithelium integrity.
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