The differentiation of the epidermis in sarcopterigian fish may reveal some trend of keratinization followed by amphibian ancestors to adapt their epidermis to land. Therefore, the process of keratinization of the epidermis of the Australian lungfish Neoceratodus forsteri was studied by histochemistry, electron microscopy, and keratin immunocytochemistry. The epidermis is tristratified in a 2-3-month-old tadpole but becomes 6-8 stratified in young adults. Keratin filaments increase from basal to external cells where loose tonofilament bundles are present. This is shown also by the comparison of positivity to sulfhydryl groups and increasing immunoreactivity to alpha-keratins in more external layers of the epidermis. Two broad-spectrum anti alpha-keratin monoclonal antibodies (AE1 and AE3) stain all epidermal layers as they do in actinopterigian fish. In the adult epidermis, but not in that of the larva, the AE2 antibody (a marker of keratinization in mammalian epidermis) often immunolabels more heavily the external keratinized layers where sulfhydryl groups are more abundant. Mucous granules are numerous and concentrate on the external surface of the epidermis to be discharged and contribute to cuticle formation. Keratin is therefore embedded in a mucus matrix, but neither compact keratin masses nor cell corneous envelope were seen in external cells. It is not known whether specific matrix proteins are associated with mucus. There was no immunolocalization of the keratin-associated proteins, filaggrin and loricrin, which suggests that the epidermis of this species lacks the matrix and cell corneus envelope proteins characteristic of that of amniotes. In conclusion, while specific keratins (AE2 positive) are probably produced in the uppermost layers as in amphibian epidermis, no interkeratin, matrix proteins seem to be present in external keratinocytes of the lungfish other than mucus.
- Dipnoan fish