Exploring Desmosomes: The Cellular Glue That Holds Us Together

Introduction to Desmosomes

Desmosomes are specialized cell junctions that play a crucial role in maintaining the structural integrity of tissues and organs. These adhesive structures act as “cellular glue” by connecting adjacent cells together, providing strength and stability. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of desmosomes, exploring their structure, function, and significance in various biological processes.

The Structure of Desmosomes

Desmosomes are complex structures composed of several components that work together to create strong cell-to-cell adhesion. Here are the main components of desmosomes:

  • 1. Desmogleins and Desmocollins: These are transmembrane proteins that span the plasma membrane of adjacent cells. They form the core of the desmosome structure and are responsible for the direct cell-to-cell adhesion.
  • 2. Desmoplakin: This protein is located on the cytoplasmic side of desmosomes and acts as a linker between the desmogleins and desmocollins and the intermediate filaments inside the cell. It provides stability and strength to the desmosome structure.
  • 3. Plakoglobin and Plakophilin: These proteins are also found on the cytoplasmic side of desmosomes and help to anchor the desmosomal proteins to the intermediate filaments. They contribute to the overall stability of the desmosome structure.
  • 4. Intermediate Filaments: Desmosomes are connected to the intermediate filaments inside the cell, primarily composed of keratin proteins. These filaments provide structural support and help distribute mechanical stress across the tissue.

The Function of Desmosomes

Desmosomes serve several important functions in the body, including:

  • 1. Cell Adhesion: The primary function of desmosomes is to provide strong adhesion between adjacent cells. This adhesion is crucial for maintaining the structural integrity of tissues and organs, especially in tissues that experience mechanical stress, such as the skin, heart, and bladder.
  • 2. Tissue Strength and Stability: Desmosomes contribute to the overall strength and stability of tissues by distributing mechanical stress across the cells. They prevent the cells from separating under tension and help to maintain tissue integrity.
  • 3. Epithelial Barrier Function: In epithelial tissues, desmosomes play a role in forming a barrier between different tissue compartments. They help to seal the gaps between cells, preventing the leakage of substances between the cells and maintaining tissue homeostasis.
  • 4. Cell Signaling: Desmosomes are also involved in cell signaling processes. They can transmit mechanical signals from the extracellular environment to the cell’s interior, influencing various cellular processes such as cell proliferation, differentiation, and migration.

The Significance of Desmosomes in Health and Disease

Desmosomes are essential for maintaining the integrity and function of various tissues and organs. Dysfunction or abnormalities in desmosomes can lead to several diseases and conditions. Here are some examples:

  • 1. Pemphigus: Pemphigus is a group of autoimmune disorders characterized by the production of autoantibodies against desmogleins, leading to the breakdown of desmosomes. This results in the loss of cell adhesion and blistering of the skin and mucous membranes.
  • 2. Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC): ARVC is a genetic heart condition characterized by the progressive replacement of heart muscle with fibrous and fatty tissue. Mutations in desmosomal proteins, such as desmoplakin and plakoglobin, have been associated with ARVC.
  • 3. Epidermolysis Bullosa: Epidermolysis bullosa is a group of genetic disorders characterized by fragile skin that blisters and tears easily. Mutations in desmosomal proteins, particularly those involved in desmosome assembly and stability, can lead to the development of epidermolysis bullosa.
  • 4. Cancer Metastasis: Altered expression or function of desmosomal proteins has been observed in various types of cancer. Dysregulated desmosomes can contribute to increased cell motility and invasiveness, promoting cancer metastasis.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Are desmosomes found in all tissues?

Desmosomes are most abundant in tissues that experience mechanical stress, such as the skin, heart, bladder, and gastrointestinal tract. However, they can also be found in other tissues, albeit in lower quantities.

2. How do desmosomes differ from other cell junctions, such as tight junctions and gap junctions?

Desmosomes provide strong adhesion between cells, while tight junctions form a barrier to prevent the passage of substances between cells. Gap junctions, on the other hand, allow for direct communication and exchange of molecules between adjacent cells.

3. Can desmosomes regenerate or repair themselves?

Desmosomes have the ability to regenerate and repair themselves. When desmosomes are damaged due to mechanical stress or injury, the cells can initiate a process called desmosome remodeling. This process involves the disassembly of the damaged desmosomes and the subsequent reassembly of new desmosomes to restore cell-to-cell adhesion.

4. Can desmosomes be targeted for therapeutic interventions?

Yes, desmosomes have emerged as potential targets for therapeutic interventions in certain diseases. For example, in pemphigus, drugs that target the autoimmune response against desmogleins have shown promise in reducing blistering and improving symptoms. Additionally, research is ongoing to develop therapies that can modulate desmosome function in cancer to inhibit metastasis.

5. How are desmosomes studied in the laboratory?

Desmosomes can be studied in the laboratory using various techniques. Immunofluorescence microscopy allows researchers to visualize the distribution and localization of desmosomal proteins in cells and tissues. Electron microscopy provides high-resolution images of the ultrastructure of desmosomes. Genetic and molecular biology techniques are also used to study the function and regulation of desmosomal proteins.


Desmosomes are remarkable cellular structures that play a vital role in maintaining tissue integrity and function. Through their strong adhesive properties, desmosomes ensure that cells stay connected, providing strength and stability to tissues and organs. Dysfunction in desmosomes can lead to various diseases and conditions, highlighting their significance in human health. By understanding the structure, function, and significance of desmosomes, researchers can continue to unravel the complexities of these cellular glue-like structures and develop targeted interventions for associated diseases.