Inside Biology

The Mighty Bonds: Exploring the Power of Desmosomes in Tissue Integrity

Desmosomes: The Anchors That Keep Our Cells TogetherHave you ever wondered how your skin manages to stay intact despite all the stretching, pulling, and bending it endures? Or how your heart’s muscles stay connected and strong even during its relentless beating?

The answer lies in a remarkable cellular structure called desmosomes. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of desmosomes, exploring their definition, components, and crucial functions.

By the end, you will have a newfound appreciation for these tiny but mighty structures that play a crucial role in our body’s structural integrity.

Definition of desmosomes

Desmosomes, also known as anchoring junctions, are specialized structures that connect adjacent cells together. The word “desmosome” derives from the Greek words “desmos,” meaning “bond,” and “soma,” meaning “body.” True to their name, desmosomes literally serve as the bonds that hold our cells together, ensuring that tissues remain intact even under tremendous strain.

At the molecular level, desmosomes consist of two primary components: the transmembrane proteins of the cadherin family and the intracellular plaque proteins.

Cadherins are responsible for cell-cell adhesion, while the intracellular plaque proteins, such as plakoglobin and plakophilin, connect the cadherins to the cytoskeleton within the cell.

Together, these components create a strong and resilient connection between neighboring cells.

Components of desmosomes

Desmosomes rely on the intermediate filaments of the cytoskeleton for their structural integrity.

Intermediate filaments are a type of protein filament found within cells that provide mechanical strength and support.

In the case of desmosomes, the intermediate filaments act as the anchor points for the intracellular plaque proteins, forming a robust network that spans the interior of cell-to-cell junctions. Additionally, desmosomes are closely associated with another type of junction called adherens junctions.

Adherens junctions are composed of cadherins and microfilaments, which are also part of the cytoskeleton. While desmosomes primarily serve to anchor cells together, adherens junctions reinforce the connection and aid in the transmission of mechanical forces between cells.

Together, desmosomes and adherens junctions create a powerful and cohesive network within tissues.

Adhering cells together

The primary function of desmosomes is to adhere cells together, thus forming strong connections between adjacent cells. This adhesive role becomes particularly crucial when tissues are subjected to mechanical forces, such as friction, stretching, or squeezing.

Without desmosomes, our skin would easily tear apart, and our organs would lose their structural integrity. The strength of desmosomal connections originates from the robust binding of cadherins to the intracellular plaque proteins, as well as the involvement of intermediate filaments.

These connections allow cells to withstand mechanical stress and maintain their structural cohesion.

Presence in different tissues

Desmosomes are found in various tissues throughout the body, playing a vital role in maintaining their structure and function. One notable example is the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin.

The epidermis acts as a barrier against pathogens and environmental insults, necessitating a sturdy connection between its cells. Desmosomes allow the epidermal cells to hold tightly together, ensuring the skin’s integrity and preventing unwanted substances from entering.

Another tissue that heavily relies on desmosomes is the myocardium, the muscular tissue of the heart. The myocardium endures constant contractions and relaxations as the heart pumps blood throughout the body.

Desmosomes between myocardial cells strengthen their connection, enabling efficient transmission of electrical signals and preventing the heart muscle from tearing apart under the stress of each heartbeat. Similar to the epidermis and myocardium, squamous epithelial cells, which line various organs and body cavities, also heavily depend on desmosomes.

These cells form a protective lining and require strong connections to resist mechanical forces and maintain their barrier function. In conclusion, desmosomes are integral to our body’s structural integrity, acting as the strong bonds that hold our cells together.

Through their components and interactions with the cytoskeleton, desmosomes provide the necessary adhesion between adjacent cells, allowing tissues to withstand mechanical forces. Whether it’s our skin withstanding stretching and bending or our heart’s muscles enduring relentless contractions, desmosomes ensure that our body stays connected and robust.

So, the next time you marvel at the resilience of your skin or the strength of your heart, remember the unsung heroes: the desmosomes that make it all possible.

Desmosome Structure

Components of desmosomal adhesion

Desmosomes are complex structures that rely on a combination of components to achieve strong cell-to-cell adhesion. At the core of desmosomal adhesion are intermediate filaments, which act as the main scaffold for the entire structure.

These intermediate filaments are made up of protein fibers called keratins and provide mechanical strength and stability to the desmosomes. In addition to intermediate filaments, desmosomes include several desmosomal adhesion molecules that play a crucial role in bonding adjacent cells together.

One such molecule is desmoglein, a transmembrane glycoprotein that spans the cell membrane. Desmoglein molecules interact with desmocollin molecules on the adjacent cell surface, forming strong adhesive bonds.

Desmocollin is another transmembrane glycoprotein belonging to the cadherin family, which is characterized by its calcium-dependent adhesion properties. The desmosomal adhesion molecules not only bind cells together but also interact with the intermediate filaments.

They connect to the intracellular plaque proteins, such as plakoglobin and plakophilin, which, in turn, anchor the intermediate filaments to the desmosomal complex. This arrangement ensures the efficient transfer of mechanical forces across the desmosome, allowing tissues to resist stretching and bending.

Desmosomal adhesion molecules

Desmosomal adhesion molecules, particularly desmoglein and desmocollin, are critical for desmosome functioning. There are several isoforms of desmoglein and desmocollin, each specific to different tissues and cell types.

These isoforms contribute to the structural and functional diversity of desmosomes found in various parts of the body. Studies have shown that mutations in desmoglein or desmocollin genes can lead to the breakdown of desmosomal adhesion, resulting in various diseases and disorders.

For example, mutations in the desmoglein 1 gene are associated with a condition called pemphigus, a group of autoimmune disorders characterized by faulty desmosomal adhesion binding. The immune system produces antibodies against desmoglein 1, leading to the separation of skin cells and the formation of blisters and sores.

Similarly, mutations in desmoglein 3 gene can also cause pemphigus, but with a different clinical presentation. These mutations disrupt desmosomal adhesion in mucous membranes, leading to blistering and erosions in the mouth, throat, and other mucosal surfaces.

The identification of these specific desmosomal adhesion molecules has not only aided in the understanding of disease mechanisms but also opened doors for potential targeted interventions.

Disorders of Faulty Desmosome Functioning

Epidermolysis Bullosa Simplex

Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) is a genetic skin disorder characterized by fragile skin that is prone to blistering, particularly in response to friction or trauma. The condition is caused by mutations in the genes encoding keratin proteins, which are vital for maintaining the integrity of intermediate filaments in the skin cells.

Without intact intermediate filaments, the desmosomes cannot effectively connect the skin cells, leading to the separation and blistering of the epidermal layers. Ectodermal Dysplasia/Skin Fragility Syndrome

Ectodermal dysplasia/skin fragility syndrome (EDSF) is a rare genetic disorder that affects the ectodermal structures, including the skin, hair, teeth, and nails.

The disorder is characterized by blistering of the skin, particularly in response to minor trauma or friction. EDSF is caused by mutations in the genes responsible for attaching intermediate filaments to desmosomes.

When this attachment is compromised, the integrity of the desmosomes is weakened, leading to blistering and abnormal growth of hair, teeth, and nails.


Pemphigus is a group of autoimmune disorders characterized by the production of antibodies against desmosomal adhesion molecules, particularly desmogleins. These antibodies interfere with the binding between desmogleins, causing a breakdown in desmosomal adhesion.

As a result, the adhesion between skin cells is compromised, leading to the formation of blisters and sores that can be painful and debilitating. Treatment for pemphigus often involves immunosuppressive medications to control the autoimmune response and promote healing of the skin.

Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia

Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD) is a rare heart disorder characterized by the progressive replacement of healthy heart muscle with fibrous or fatty tissue. This structural abnormality weakens the desmosomal connections between heart muscle cells, making them more prone to detachment and rupture.

As a result, electrical signals in the heart are disrupted, leading to arrhythmias and potential complications, including heart palpitations and sudden cardiac death. Treatment for ARVD may involve medication, defibrillator implantation, or, in severe cases, heart transplantation.

In conclusion, understanding the structure and functioning of desmosomes is crucial for appreciating the complex mechanisms that allow our cells and tissues to remain connected and intact. Defects in desmosomal components or adhesive molecules can result in various disorders, ranging from skin blistering to heart abnormalities.

Ongoing research in this field holds promise for the development of targeted interventions and treatments, offering hope to those affected by desmosome-related disorders.

Related Biology Terms

Anchoring junction

Anchoring junctions are a type of cell-cell junction that play a crucial role in maintaining the structural integrity and stability of tissues. These junctions are characterized by a mass of proteins that form a strong adhesive connection between adjacent cells.

Desmosomes, which have been discussed in detail in previous sections, are a type of anchoring junction. Anchoring junctions are primarily found in tissues that experience mechanical stress or strain, such as the skin, heart, and muscles.

They provide the necessary strength and resistance to maintain tissue cohesion, especially when subjected to external forces. Without anchoring junctions, our tissues would be more prone to tearing, disintegration, or detachment, compromising their function.

One key feature of anchoring junctions is their ability to distribute mechanical forces across tissues. The proteins in these junctions are specifically designed to withstand stretching, compression, and shearing forces.

This distribution of forces ensures that the load is shared across multiple cells, minimizing damage to individual cells and maximizing the overall strength of the tissue.

Adherens junction

Adherens junctions are another type of cell-cell junction that work in conjunction with anchoring junctions to provide tissue stability. These junctions play a crucial role in cell adhesion and are composed of transmembrane proteins known as cadherins, which are discussed in more detail in the next subtopic.

Adherens junctions are structurally linked to the actin cytoskeleton through microfilaments. This connection allows for the transmission of mechanical forces and ensures the integrity of the junction.

By linking cells together, adherens junctions help distribute mechanical stress and strain throughout tissues, further reinforcing the connectivity provided by anchoring junctions. One important function of adherens junctions is their involvement in tissue morphogenesis and development.

During embryonic development, adherens junctions play a vital role in cell sorting and tissue organization. They guide cell movements, maintain tissue boundaries, and contribute to the establishment of tissue structures.

Through these processes, adherens junctions help shape the tissues and organs of our body.


Cadherins are a family of calcium-dependent transmembrane proteins that are crucial for cell-cell adhesion. They are the main molecular component of adherens junctions and play a central role in the formation and maintenance of cell adhesion.

Cadherins are typically categorized into various subtypes, including E-cadherin, N-cadherin, and P-cadherin, among others.

Cadherins mediate cell adhesion by forming homophilic interactions, meaning they bind to other cadherin molecules on adjacent cells of the same subtype. This binding forms strong adhesive bonds that hold cells together.

Through their interactions, cadherins help establish and maintain tissue architecture, ensuring the proper arrangement and organization of cells within tissues. The presence of calcium ions is essential for cadherin-mediated cell adhesion.

Calcium ions bind to specific sites on cadherins, stabilizing their structure and enabling them to establish connections with other cadherins. This calcium-dependent mechanism ensures the tight and regulated adhesion between cells, as the presence of calcium ions maintains the adhesion while their absence facilitates cell dissociation.

Intermediate filaments

Intermediate filaments are a component of the cytoskeleton, a network of protein filaments that provides structural support and mechanical stability to cells. Unlike microfilaments and microtubules, intermediate filaments have a larger diameter and form a more stable and permanent scaffold within the cell.

Intermediate filaments are composed of various fibrous proteins, including keratins, vimentin, desmin, and neurofilaments, among others. Different cell types produce distinct combinations of these proteins, giving rise to tissue-specific intermediate filament networks.

For example, keratins are the main constituents of intermediate filaments in epithelial cells, while vimentin is prevalent in mesenchymal cells. The primary function of intermediate filaments is to provide mechanical support and strength to cells and tissues.

They do so by anchoring to anchoring and adherens junctions, connecting with desmosomal and adherens proteins.

Intermediate filaments distribute mechanical forces throughout the cells and tissues, preventing excessive strain on individual cells and ensuring the structural integrity of the tissue.

In addition to their mechanical role, intermediate filaments are involved in various cellular processes, including cell signaling and intracellular organization. They interact with other cellular structures, such as the nucleus and organelles, contributing to the overall cell architecture and function.

Intermediate filaments also have a protective role, providing resistance against mechanical stress, chemical insults, and heat. In conclusion, understanding the related biology terms, such as anchoring junctions, adherens junctions, cadherins, and intermediate filaments, is crucial for comprehending the complexities of cell adhesion, tissue structure, and mechanical stability.

These components and their interactions contribute to the overall functionality and integrity of our tissues and organs. Research in these areas continues to shed light on the intricate mechanisms underlying cell-to-cell adhesion and tissue organization, leading to potential advancements in medical treatments and therapies.

Desmosomes play a crucial role in maintaining the structural integrity of our tissues and organs. These complex structures, consisting of adhesive proteins and intermediate filaments, provide strong connections between adjacent cells, allowing tissues to withstand mechanical forces.

Anchoring junctions and adherens junctions work together to distribute these forces and ensure tissue stability. Mutations in desmosomal adhesion molecules or intermediate filament proteins can give rise to various disorders, including skin blistering, autoimmune conditions, and heart abnormalities.

Understanding the intricacies of desmosome structure and function not only deepens our knowledge of biology but also paves the way for potential interventions and treatments. The study of desmosomes highlights the profound importance of cellular connections in maintaining the integrity and functionality of our bodies.

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