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Our skin sometimes has problems, but the one thing we can always depend on it for is to hold us together. We aren’t leaking blood or sweat everywhere at any given time, even though we shed about 500 million cells per day.
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We replace our entire outer layer of skin every few weeks, but we never leak, and we’ve never really known why. Now scientists say that they have figured out why: it has to do with the arrangement of shapes called tetrakaidecahedrons. These shapes never leave a gap, even as cells disappear.
“Our study is also helping us to see how the cells that make up our skin can switch on a mechanism to make a kind of glue, which binds the cells together, ensuring that our skin maintains its integrity,” says one of the team, Reiko Tanaka, from the Imperial College London to Science Alert.
Tanaka and team investigated the layer of skin that protects us using the findings of other studies which showed that our skin has two main physical barriers: the stratum corneum and a lower layer that is a liquid-liquid interface barrier formed by tight junctions.
There is little known about the level that sits below it, the stratum granulosum. This layer plays a huge role in the shedding process. In order for us to shed our outer layers of skin, new skin cells have to be produced at the lowest levels before they move up.
Still, up until now, we didn’t know how all of this actually happened.
Tanaka and her team used a strange imaging technique called confocal microscopy to examine the stratum granulosum cells of mice and found that the shape is what makes everything work. The shape is something like Kelvin’s tetrakaidecahedron: a 14-sided polyhedron with six rectangular and eight hexagonal sides, but it is flattened.
The team figured out the shape by producing a protein that acts like temporary glue that holds the old skin on top until the new skin forms beneath.
While the experiments were only done on mice, it appears that everything is very similar.
Failures in the shape might explain some common skin problems: “In other cases, fails in the interlocking barrier between cells – the tight junctions – may partly explain why in psoriasis there is an overproduction of epidermal cells, causing thick patches of skin on the surface.”