Epithelium is one of the four basic types of animal tissue, along with connective tissue, muscle tissue and nervous tissue. Epithelial tissues line the cavities and surfaces of structures throughout the body, and also form many glands. Functions of epithelial cells include secretion, selective absorption, protection, transcellular transport and detection of sensation. In Greek "Epi" means, "on, upon," and "Theli" meaning, "nipple," or in general "tissue."
Epidermis is a special type of epithelium forming the outer layer of skin.
Epithelial tissue lies on top of connective tissue, from which it is separated by a basement membrane. It is composed of tightly clustered cells connected by tight junctions and desmosomes. Epithelial tissue is avascular, so it must receive nourishment via diffusion of substances from the underlying connective tissue, through the basement membrane.
The cells in epithelium are very densely packed together, leaving very little intercellular space. The cells form continuous sheets which are attached to each other at many locations by tight junctions and desmosomes.
All epithelial cells rest on a basement membrane, which acts as a scaffolding on which epithelium can grow and regenerate after injuries. Epithelial tissue is innervated, but avascular. Thus epithelial tissue must be nourished by substances diffusing from the blood vessels in the underlying tissue. The basement membrane acts as a selectively permeable membrane that determines which substances will be able to enter the epithelium.
Cell junctions are especially abundant in epithelial tissues. They consist of protein complexes and provide contact between neighbouring cells, between a cell and the extracellular matrix, or they build up the paracellular barrier of epithelia and control the paracellular transport.
Classification of epithelial tissue
Types of epithelium
Epithelial tissues are generally classified by the morphology of their cells, and the number of layers they are composed of. Epithelial tissue that is only one cell thick is known as simple epithelium. If it is two or more cells thick, it is known as stratified epithelium. However, when taller simple epithelial cells (see columnar, below) are viewed in cross section with several nuclei appearing at different heights, they can be confused with stratified epithelia. This kind of epithelium is therefore described as "pseudostratified" epithelium.
Simple epithelium is one cell thick, that is, every cell is in direct contact with the underlying basement membrane. It is generally found where absorption and filtration occur. The thinness of the epithelial barrier facilitates these processes.
Simple epithelial tissues are generally classified by the shape of their cells. The four major classes of simple epithelium are: simple squamous; simple cuboidal; simple columnar; pseudostratified.
Stratified epithelium differs from simple epithelium in that it is multilayered. It is therefore found where body linings have to withstand mechanical or chemical insult such that layers can be abraded and lost without exposing subepithelial layers. Cells flatten as the layers become more apical, though in their most basal layers the cells can be squamous, cuboidal or columnar.
Stratified epithelial tissue also differs from simple epithelial tissue in that stratified epithelial tissues do not contain junctional complexes, and have their cells bound together only by desmosomes.
Stratified epithelia (of columnar, cuboidal or squamous type) can have the following specializations:
Keratinized In this case, the most apical layers (exterior) of cells are dead and lose their nucleus and cytoplasm, instead contain a tough, resistant protein called keratin. This specialization makes the epithelium waterproof, so is found in the mammalian skin. The lining of the esophagus is an example of a non-keratinized or "moist" stratified epithelium.
Transitional Transitional epithelium, like pseudostratified epithelium, is almost a class of its own; it is found in tissues that stretch and it can appear to be stratified cuboidal when the tissue is not stretched or stratified squamous when the organ is distended and the tissue stretches. It is sometimes called the urothelium since it is almost exclusively found in the bladder, ureters and urethra.
The primary functions of epithelial tissues are: (1) to protect the tissues that lie beneath it from radiation, desiccation, toxins, and physical trauma; (2) the regulation and exchange of chemicals between the underlying tissues and a body cavity; and/or (3) the secretion of biological enzymes from epithelial tissue known as glandular epithelium.
As stated above, secretion is one major function of epithelial cells. Glands are formed from the invagination / infolding of epithelial cells and subsequent growth in the underlying connective tissue. There are two major classifications of glands: endocrine glands and exocrine glands. Endocrine glands are glands that secrete their product directly onto a surface rather than through a duct. This group contains the glands of the Endocrine system.
Sensing the extracellular environment
"Some epithelial cells are ciliated, and they commonly exist as a sheet of polarised cells forming a tube or tubule with cilia projecting into the lumen." Primary cilia on epithelial cells provide chemosensation, thermosensation and mechanosensation of the extracellular environment by playing "a sensory role mediating specific signalling cues, including soluble factors in the external cell environment, a secretory role in which a soluble protein is released to have an effect downstream of the fluid flow, and mediation of fluid flow if the cilia are motile."
In general, there are epithelial tissues deriving from all of the embryological germ layers:
- from ectoderm (e.g., the epidermis);
- from endoderm (e.g., the lining of the gastrointestinal tract);
- from mesoderm (e.g., the inner linings of body cavities).
However, it is important to note that pathologists do not consider endothelium and mesothelium (both derived from mesoderm) to be true epithelium. This is because such tissues present very different pathology. For that reason, pathologists label cancers in endothelium and mesothelium sarcomas, whereas true epithelial cancers are called carcinomas. Also, the filaments that support these mesoderm-derived tissues are very distinct. Outside of the field of pathology, it is, in general, accepted that the epithelium arises from all three germ layers.
Growing in culture
When growing epithelium in culture, one can determine whether or not a particular cell is epithelial by examining its morphological characteristics. Epithelial cells tend to cluster together, and have a "characteristic tight pavementlike appearance". But this is not always the case, such as when the cells are derived from a tumor. In these cases, it is often necessary to use certain biochemical markers to make a positive identification. The intermediate filament proteins in the cytokeratin group are almost exclusively found in epithelial cells, and so are often used for this purpose.
Epithelium lines both the outside (skin) and the inside cavities and lumen of bodies. The outermost layer of our skin is composed of dead stratified squamous, keratinized epithelial cells.
Tissues that line the inside of the mouth, the esophagus and part of the rectum are composed of nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium. Other surfaces that separate body cavities from the outside environment are lined by simple squamous, columnar, or pseudostratified epithelial cells. Other epithelial cells line the insides of the lungs, the gastrointestinal tract, the reproductive and urinary tracts, and make up the exocrine and endocrine glands. The outer surface of the cornea is covered with fast-growing, easily-regenerated epithelial cells. Endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels, the heart, and lymphatic vessels) is a specialized form of epithelium. Another type, mesothelium, forms the walls of the pericardium, pleurae, and peritoneum.