Niessen, Carien M / Brinkkötter, Paul - C 5

Regulation of cell and tissue architecture in skin homeostasis, regeneration and degeneration

Human diseases often display cytoskeletal rearrangement and altered cell polarity. We propose that alterations in key regulators of cell- and tissue architecture underlie a range of degenerative and inflammatory diseases. To examine this we have generated epidermal specific mouse models for key regulators of cyto-architecture and shown important functions for skin barrier function, integrity, cell fate and inflammation.


Continuous renewal of the interfollicular epidermis (IFE) and its appendages, hair follicles (HF) and sebaceous glands, is crucial for organisms to maintain and restore the skin barrier that protects from dehydration and external challenges, such as UV and microbes. Perturbations of the skin barrier contribute to a range of very common human skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, impaired wound healing and skin cancer. A common feature of these diseases is an altered cyto-architecture often accompanied by changes in adhesive interactions and barrier properties. The atypical protein kinase C (aPKC)/Par3/Par6 pathway regulates polarity and mediates insulin/IGF1 and NfκB signaling (Moscat et al., 2009). This pathway may thus integrate regulation of cyto-architecture with control of growth, metabolism and inflammation. The overall aim of this proposal is to elucidate how polarity proteins control epithelial barrier formation and maintenance and ask how alterations in cell and tissue architecture contribute to disturbed skin homeostasis and disease.

Identification of novel aPKC substrates and binding partners

To identify how the aPKC/Par complex controls cell fate, barrier function and inflammation and examine potential specific and overlapping functions of the two mammalian aPKCλ and ζ isoforms, we took an unbiased mass spectrometry approach. Specifically, we established stable isotope labeling with amino acids in cell culture (SILAC) in combination with enrichment for phospho-proteins in keratinocytes to identify potential substrates. This was combined with immunoprecipiation followed by mass spectrometry. This combined proteomic analysis revealed known and novel functions for aPKC and identified several new binding partners and/or substrates through which aPKCs control cell fate, junctional organization, barrier function and growth signalling (Fig. 1). For example, our results showed that aPKCs not only serve as key regulators of tight junctions, as expected, but also control the stratum corneum barrier, which was further confirmed by functional studies on mice. aPKC may thus coordinate the formation and maintenance of these two barriers in skin. In addition, the proteomic data revealed that the two mammalian aPKCs control Map kinase signalling in opposite directions, which might explain in part why aPKC and aPKC can serve tumor promoting versus inhibitor functions, respectively, in certain cancers.

Mammalian aPKCs control spindle orientation and cell fate

Previously, we have shown that epidermal loss of aPKCλ results in stem cell exhaustion, cell fate changes, and premature aging (Niessen et al., 2013), accompanied by an increase in asymmetric spindle orientation, which are predicted to promote differentiation. As epidermal loss of aPKCλ promoted ACD and shifted stem cells towards differentiation, we would predict that an increase in SCDs will produce more undifferentiated progenitor cells. To this end we have generated a knock-in mouse model in which a membrane-targeted aPKCλ mutant (aPKCλcaax), shown in Drosophila to promote stem cell renewal, is expressed in the epidermis. This resulted in opposite phenotypes from loss of aPKCλ, such as stem cell expansion and prolonged stem cell quiescence. Surprisingly, this was also accompanied by increased asymmetric spindle orientation, indicating that increased spindle orientation alone cannot predict cell fate (Vorhagen et al., submitted).  The aPKC interactome/proteome revealed several candidates, such as the polarity protein Lgl and the spindle orientation proteins Numa and Dynactin, as aPKC interaction and/or substrates and first experiments suggest that these proteins control cell fate and spindle orientation downstream of aPKCs.

Key regulators of cyto-architecture control polarized formation of the epidermal barrier

Using different epidermal knockouts we have uncovered novel roles for key regulators of the cyto-architecture, cadherins and the polarity protein complex atypical kinase C (aPKC)/Par3, in the polarized organization of tension high junctions and the cytoskeleton essential for the restricted formation of functional barrier promoting tight junctions to the upper epidermal layers (Rübsam et al, in revision; Tellkamp et al, in preparation). These studies also revealed a novel and unexpected role for EGFR signalling in the structural barrier that is potentially linked to its role in innate immune signalling (Fig.2), which may potentially explain how cancer patients treated with EGFR develop skin rashes.


Our combined proteomic and functional approaches have identified aPKCs and cadherins as key regulators in a network that controls epidermal differentiation, barrier function and skin homeostasis. Our results provide novel insides into how altered epithelial barrier function results in human disease. The ultimate goal is to use our different models to screen small molecular compounds and characterize novel molecular targets downstream of polarity pathways for the intervention in (skin) barrier related diseases.

Selected publications

Niessen M.T., Scott, J., Zielinski, J., Vorhagen S., Blanpain, C., Leitges, M. and Niessen C.M. (2103) The cell polarity protein aPKCλ couples asymmetric divisions to cell fate decisions in the epidermal lineage. J. Cell Biology, 202:887-900

Tellkamp, F, Vorhagen, S and Niessen C.M. (2014) Epidermal Polarity Genes in Health and Disease. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives, 4(12):a015255

Sallach J, Di Pasquale G, Larcher F, Niehoff N, Rübsam M, Huber A, Chiorini J, Almarza D, Eming SA, Ulus H, Nishimura S, Hacker UT, Hallek M, Niessen CM, Büning H. (2014) Tropism-modified AAV vectors overcome barriers to successful cutaneous therapy. Mol Ther. 22: 929-939.

Vorhagen S. and Niessen C.M. (2014) Mammalian aPKC/Par polarity complex mediated regulation of epithelial division orientation and cell fate. Exp. Cell Res. 328:296-302.

Peters, F., Vorhagen, S., Brodesser, S., Jacobshagen K., Brüning JC, Niessen CM+, Krönke M+. (2015) Ceramide synthase 4 regulates stem cell homeostasis and hair follicle cycling. J. Invest. Dermatol. 135:1501-9
+shared last corresponding authors

Koehler S, Tellkamp F., Niessen C.M., Bloch W., Kerjaschki, D, Schermer B., Benzing T. and Brinkkoetter P.T. (2016) Par3A is dispensable for the function of the glomerular filtration barrier of the kidney. Am. J. Physiol. Renal Physiol. 311:F112-9.

Rietscher K, Wolf A, Hause G., Rother A, Keil R, Magin TM, Glass M, Niessen CM & Hatzfeld, M (2016) Growth retardation, loss of desmosomal adhesion and impaired tight junction function identify a unique role of plakophilin in vivo. J. Invest. Dermatol. 36(7):1471-8

Le H-Q, H, Ghatak S., Yeung, C-YC, Tellkamp F, Gunschmann, C, Dieterich, C, Yeroslaviz, A, Habermann, B, Pombo, A, Niessen, CM and Wickström, SA (2016) Mechanical regulation of transcription drives Polycomb mediated gene silence during lineage committment. Nature Cell Biology, 18:864-75 DOI 10.1038/ncb3387

Former Funding Period 01/2014 - 12/2016

Information from this funding period will not be updated anymore. New research related information is available here.

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Carien M Niessen

Dept. of Dermatology

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Carien Niessen

Principal Investigator C 10
Executive Board Member

Work +49 221 478 89512

Fax (Work) +49 221 478 6360

Dept. of Dermatology
Joseph-Stelzmann-Str. 26
50931 Cologne


Link to PubMed

Prof. Dr. med. Paul T Brinkkötter

Dept. II of Internal Medicine

Prof. Dr. med. Paul T Brinkkötter

Work +49 221 478 89593

Dept. II of Internal Medicine Nephrology, Rheumatology, Diabetology and general Internal Medicine
Kerpener Str. 62
50937 Cologne


Link to PubMed

Group Members

Dr. Oana Persa (MD)
Dr. Susanne Vorhagen (Postdoc)
Jabiz Nafisi (PhD Student)
Frederik Tellkamp (PhD Student)
Julia Stinn (Technician)

Figure 1

Figure 1: Mammalian aPKCs interactome and (phospho)-proteome reveal known and novel processes controlled by these kinases

Figure 2

Figure 2: E-cadherin controls tissue polarization of tension-high adherens junctions (AJ), F-actin and and EGFR to restrict formation of functional TJs (ZO-1) to granular layer.