Introduction: The skin is comprised of various kinds of cells and has three layers, the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous adipose tissue. Stem cells in each tissue duplicate themselves and differentiate to supply new cells that function in the tissue, and thereby maintain the tissue homeostasis. In contrast, senescent cells accumulate with age and secrete senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP) factors that impair surrounding cells and tissues, which lowers the capacity to maintain homeostasis in each tissue. Previously, we found Gremlin 2 (GREM2) as a novel SASP factor in the skin and reported that GREM2 suppressed the differentiation of adipose-derived stromal/stem cells. In the present study, we investigated the effects of GREM2 on stem cells in the epidermis and dermis. Methods: To examine whether GREM2 expression and the differentiation levels in the epidermis and dermis are correlated, the expressions of GREM2, stem cell markers, an epidermal differentiation marker Keratin 10 (KRT10) and a dermal differentiation marker type 3 procollagen were examined in the skin samples (n = 14) randomly chosen from the elderly where GREM2 expression level is high and the individual differences of its expression are prominent. Next, to test whether GREM2 affects the differentiation of skin stem cells, cells from two established lines (an epidermal and a dermal stem/progenitor cell model) were cultured and induced to differentiate, and recombinant GREM2 protein was added. Results: In the human skin, the expression levels of GREM2 varied among individuals both in the epidermis and dermis. The expression level of GREM2 was not correlated with the number of stem cells, but negatively correlated with those of both an epidermal and a dermal differentiation markers. The expression levels of epidermal differentiation markers were significantly suppressed by the addition of GREM2 in the three-dimensional (3D) epidermis generated with an epidermal stem/progenitor cell model. In addition, by differentiation induction, the expressions of dermal differentiation markers were induced in cells from a dermal stem/progenitor cell model, and the addition of GREM2 significantly suppressed the expressions of the dermal differentiation markers. Conclusions: GREM2 expression level did not affect the numbers of stem cells in the epidermis and dermis but affects the differentiation and maturation levels of the tissues, and GREM2 suppressed the differentiation of stem/progenitor cells in vitro. These findings suggest that GREM2 may contribute to the age-related reduction in the capacity to maintain skin homeostasis by suppressing the differentiation of epidermal and dermal stem/progenitor cells.
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