Epithelial stem cells in the skin: definition, markers, localization and functions


  • G. Cotsarelis,

  • P. Kaur,

  • D. Dhouailly,

  • U. Hengge,

  • J. Bickenbach


In recent years, cutaneous epithelial stem cells have attained a genuine celebrity status. They are considered the key resource for epidermal and skin appendage regeneration, and are proposed as a preferential target of cutaneous gene therapy. Follicular epithelial stem cells may also give rise to a large variety of epithelial tumors, and cutaneous epithelial stem cells likely are crucial targets for physical or chemical agents (including carcinogens) that damage the skin and its appendages. However, as this Controversies feature illustrates, few experts can agree on how exactly to define and identify these elusive cells, or on where precisely in the skin they are localized. Given their potential importance in skin biology, pathology and future dermatological therapy, it is, therefore, timely to carefully reconsider the basic questions: What exactly is a stem cell, and how can we reliably identify epithelial stem cells? How many different kinds are there, and how do they differ functionally? Where exactly in the skin epithelium is each of the putative stem cell subpopulations located, and can we selectively manipulate any of them?