Lipid Barrier to Water Exchange in Reptile Epidermis

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Science  07 Mar 1980:
Vol. 207, Issue 4435, pp. 1077-1079
DOI: 10.1126/science.207.4435.1077


Extraction of lipids from the shed epidermis of the terrestrial snake Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta increases cutaneous water loss in vitro as much as 15-fold. Partial denaturation of epidermal keratin without lipid extraction increases cutaneous water loss only twofold. Histological observations and thin-layer and gas-liquid chromatography of the lipid extracts indicate a complex mixture of polar and neutral lipids predominantly in the mesos layer of the cornified epidermis. Comparative measurements of cutaneous water loss in other species of snakes and a lizard show that permeabilities differ naturally but are essentially identical after lipid extraction. These findings establish the importance of lipids in the permeability barrier of reptilian skin and suggest that keratin or scale morphology are of nominal importance in limiting water exchange.