Desmosomes are cadherin-based intercellular junctions that primarily provide mechanical stability to tissues such as epithelia and cardiac muscle. Desmosomal cadherins, which are Ca2+-dependent adhesion molecules, are of central importance in mediating direct intercellular interaction. The close association of these proteins, with intracellular components of desmosomes ultimately linked to the cytoskeleton, is believed to play an important role in tissue morphogenesis during development and wound healing. Elucidation of the binding mechanism of adhesive interfaces between the extracellular domains of cadherins has been approached by structural, biophysical and biochemical methods. X-ray crystal structures of isolated extracellular domains of cadherins have provided compelling evidence of the mutual binding of the highly conserved N-terminal residue, Trp2, from opposing proteins. This binding interface was also implicated by biochemical and cell-adhesion assays and mutagenesis data to be the primary adhesive interface between cells. Recent results based on electron tomography of epidermal desmosomes were consistent with this view, showing cadherin molecules interacting at their N-terminal tips. An integrative structural approach involving X-ray crystallography, cryo-electron tomography and immuno-electron microscopy should give the complete picture of the architecture of this important junction; identifying its various proteins and showing their arrangements and binding interfaces under native conditions. Together with these ‘static’ approaches, live-cell imaging of cultured keratinocytes should provide important insights into the dynamic property of the assembly and disassembly of desmosomes.

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