So far it was reported that a switch from low to high extracellular calcium induces growth arrest and terminal differentiation in cultured human and mouse keratinocytes. We had observed that both canine and mouse keratinocytes proliferate in high (1.8 mM, respectively, 1.2 mM) or low (0.09 and 0.06 mM) calcium-containing medium. In-depth analysis of this phenomenon revealed, as reported here, that the switch between proliferation and terminal differentiation occurred irrespective of calcium conditions when the canine and murine keratinocytes reach confluency. The "confluency switch" coincided with transcriptional upregulation of cell cycle inhibitors p21(WAF1) and p27(KIP1) as well as proteins marking onset of terminal differentiation. It was further accompanied by downregulation and nuclear clearance of c-Myc, and conversely activation of Notch1, which are shown to be critical determinants of this process. Together, this study demonstrates that even in the absence of and similar to their in vivo environment, cultured canine and mouse keratinocytes follow a pre-defined differentiation program. This program is in control of c-Myc and Notch1 and does not require complementary signals for onset of terminal differentiation except those given by cell-cell contact. Once triggered, completion of the terminal differentiation process depends on elevated extracellular calcium to stabilize intercellular junctions and components of the cornified envelope.
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