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Keywords:

  • tortoise;
  • embryo;
  • skin;
  • beta-keratin;
  • ultrastructure;
  • immunocytochemistry

Abstract

The sequence of differentiation of the epidermis of scutes during embryogenesis in the tortoise Testudo hermanni was studied using autoradiography, electron microscopy and immunocytochemistry. The study was mainly conducted on the epidermis of the carapace, plastron and nail. Epidermal differentiation resembles that described for other reptiles, and the embryonic epidermis is composed of numerous cell layers. In the early stages of differentiation of the carapacial ridge, cytoplasmic blebs of epidermal cells are in direct contact with the extracellular matrix and mesenchymal cells. The influence of the dermis on the formation of the beta-layer is discussed. The dermis becomes rich in collagen bundles at later stages of development. The embryonic epidermis is formed by a flat periderm and four to six layers of subperidermal cells, storing 40–70-nm-thick coarse filaments that may represent interkeratin or matrix material. Beta-keratin is associated with the coarse filaments, suggesting that the protein may be polymerized on their surface. The presence of beta-keratin in embryonic epidermis suggests that this keratin might have been produced at the beginning of chelonian evolution. The embryonic epidermis of the scutes is lost around hatching and leaves underneath the definitive corneous beta-layer. Beneath the embryonic epidermis, cells that accumulate typical large bundles of beta-keratin appear at stage 23 and at hatching a compact beta-layer is present. The differentiation of these cells shows the progressive replacement of alpha-keratin bundles with bundles immunolabelled for beta-keratin. The nucleus is degraded and electron-dense nuclear material mixes with beta-keratin. In general, changes in tortoise skin when approaching terrestrial life resemble those of other reptiles. Lepidosaurian reptiles form an embryonic shedding layer and crocodilians have a thin embryonic epidermis that is rapidly lost near hacthing. Chelonians have a thicker embryonic epidermis that accumulates beta-keratin, a protein later used to make a thick corneous layer.