The endothelium is the layer of cells lining the blood vessels in animals. It weighs more than one kilogram in adult humans, and it covers a surface area of 4000 to 7000 square meters. The endothelium is the cellular interface between the circulating blood and underlying tissue. As the medium between these two sets of tissues, endothelium is part of many normal and disease processes throughout the body. The endothelium responds to signals from its surrounding environment to help regulate functions like the resistance that blood vessels need to pump blood through the body (vasomotor tone), the policing of substances trying to enter or exit the blood vessel (blood vessel permeability), and the ability of blood to clot (hemostasis). In addition to diseases like atherosclerosis, endothelium has been indicated as a component in pathologies like cancer, asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, and sepsis. The shape, size, and appearance of endothelial cells, called their phenotypes, vary depending upon which part of the body the cells are from, a property called phenotypic heterogeneity. The endothelium, its properties, and its responses to stimuli are governed largely by the local environment of the cells.

Between February 1969 and August 1970 Edward Kollar and Grace Baird, from the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, published three papers that established the role of the mesenchyme in tooth induction. Drawing upon a history of using tissue interactions to understand differentiation, Kollar and Baird designed their experiments to understand how differentiated structures become specified. Their work overturned a widely accepted model that epithelium controls the identity of the structure, a phenomenon called structural specificity. Interactions between epithelium and mesenchyme control the development and differentiation of many parts during embryonic development, including structures like the gastrointestinal tract and hair. Thus, the realization that mesenchyme drives induction and differentiation during epithelio-mesenchymal interactions had far-reaching effects.

In 1974, Elizabeth Dexter Hay and Stephen Meier in the US conducted an experiment that demonstrated that the extracellular matrix, the mesh-like network of proteins and carbohydrates found outside of cells in the body, interacted with cells and affected their behaviors. In the experiment, Hay and Meier removed the outermost layer of cells that line the front of the eye, called corneal epithelium, from developing chick embryos. Prior to their experiment, scientists observed that corneal epithelium produced collagen, the primary component of the extracellular matrix, which provides structural support to cells throughout the body. In their experiment, Hay and Meier confirmed that the lens capsule, a collagen-containing structure of the eye’s extracellular matrix, induced the corneal epithelium to produce collagen. That result demonstrated that extracellular matrix interactions affect tissue development in developing embryos.

Frederik Ruysch, working in the Netherlands, introduced the term epithelia in the third volume of his Thesaurus Anatomicus in 1703. Ruysch created the term from the Greek epi, which means on top of, and thele, which means nipple, to describe the type of tissue he found when dissecting the lip of a cadaver. In the mid nineteenth century, anatomist Albrecht von Haller adopted the word epithelium, designating Ruysch's original terminology as the plural version. In modern science, epithelium is a type of animal tissue in which cells are packed into neatly arranged sheets. The epithelial cells lie proximate to each other and attach to a thin, fibrous sheet called a basement membrane. Epithelia line the surfaces of cavities and structures throughout the body, and also form glands. Although they lack blood vessels, epithelia contain nerves and can function to receive sensation, absorb, protect, and secrete, depending on which part of the body the epithelia line. During development, epithelia act in conjunction with another tissue type, mesenchyme, to form nearly every organ in the body, from hair and teeth to the digestive tract. Epithelia are an essential part of embryonic development and the maintenance and function of the body throughout life.

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