Recent evidence supports and reinforces the concept that environmental cues may reprogramme somatic cells and change their natural fate. In the present review, we concentrate on environmental reprogramming and fate potency of different epithelial cells. These include stratified epithelia, such as the epidermis, hair follicle, cornea and oesophagus, as well as the thymic epithelium, which stands alone among simple and stratified epithelia, and has been shown recently to contain stem cells. In addition, we briefly discuss the pancreas as an example of plasticity of intrinsic progenitors and even differentiated cells. Of relevance, examples of plasticity and fate change characterize pathologies such as oesophageal metaplasia, whose possible cell origin is still debated, but has important implications as a pre-neoplastic event. Although much work remains to be done in order to unravel the full potential and plasticity of epithelial cells, exploitation of this phenomenon has already entered the clinical arena, and might provide new avenues for future cell therapy of these tissues.

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