Cell-cell adhesion molecules and the development of an epithelial phenotype in cultured human retinal pigment epithelial cells

Brian S. McKay, Pamela E. Irving, Christine M.B. Skumatz, Janice M. Burke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


For most epithelial cells, the adherens junction protein E-cadherin is an epithelial morphogen, inducing the development of an epithelial phenotype in vitro after cell contact at confluency. Here retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPE), which lack E-cadherin but express a cadherin that is also found in many nonepithelial cells (N-cadherin), were examined for the ability to produce an epithelial phenotype in vitro. Subpopulations of grossly epithelioid or fusiform cells were selected for analysis from RPE cultures derived from adult human donors. After confluency, epithelioid RPE cells were observed to undergo time-dependent changes that were similar to those previously found in epithelial cells expressing E-cadherin: the cadherin gradually developed a zonular distribution of detergent-resistant protein that co-localized with forming circumferential actin bundles; Na/K ATPase accumulated at cell contact sites, then polarized to its tissue-specific domain (the apical membrane for RPE); the cells formed elevated domes on the impermeant culture substrate. In contrast to cells expressing E-cadherin, these events in RPE required weeks rather than days at confluency. Additional proteins were examined in epithelioid RPE cells revealing that cytokeratins reorganized after confluency producing a zonular array, and several other adhesion proteins (α5β1 integrin, ICAM-1, PECAM-1, NCAM) became enriched at cell-cell contact sites, each developing a distinct pattern at a distinct postconfluency interval. In contrast to epithelioid RPE, in fusiform RPE the adhesion molecules did not develop discrete distribution patterns after confluency, although the same complement of adhesion proteins was expressed. In cells expressing E-cadherin, the absence of epithelial properties is often due to underexpression of the cadherin or of the catenins, adherens junction proteins that link the cadherin to actin. Pusiform RPE, however, were not deficient in these proteins, expressing amounts of N-cadherin, α-catenin, β-catenin, plakoglobin, p120, α-actinin and vinculin that were equivalent to epithelioid cells. It appears, therefore, that a subset of epithelial cells that express N-cadherin can produce a highly-developed epithelial phenotype in vitro through a slow morphogenetic process. However, the expression alone of adhesion molecules, including those with a morphoregulatory function in other cells, is insufficient to produce an epithelial phenotype in all cells derived from the pigment epithelium.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)661-671
Number of pages11
JournalExperimental eye research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1997


  • N-cadherin
  • cell junctions
  • cell-cell adhesions
  • epithelial morphogenesis
  • epithelial polarity
  • pigment epithelium

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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