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Open Access Research article

Self-consistent field theory for the interactions between keratin intermediate filaments

Anna Akinshina12*, Etienne Jambon-Puillet13, Patrick B Warren1 and Massimo G Noro1*

Author Affiliations

1 Unilever R&D Port Sunlight, Quarry Road East, Bebington, Wirral, CH63 3JW, UK

2 School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK

3 Institut Curie Centre de Recherche, CNRS UMR 168 - UPMC, F-75231, Paris Cedex 05, France

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BMC Biophysics 2013, 6:12  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-6-12

Published: 5 September 2013



Keratins are important structural proteins found in skin, hair and nails. Keratin Intermediate Filaments are major components of corneocytes, nonviable horny cells of the Stratum Corneum, the outermost layer of skin. It is considered that interactions between unstructured domains of Keratin Intermediate Filaments are the key factor in maintaining the elasticity of the skin.


We have developed a model for the interactions between keratin intermediate filaments based on self-consistent field theory. The intermediate filaments are represented by charged surfaces, and the disordered terminal domains of the keratins are represented by charged heteropolymers grafted to these surfaces. We estimate the system is close to a charge compensation point where the heteropolymer grafting density is matched to the surface charge density. Using a protein model with amino acid resolution for the terminal domains, we find that the terminal chains can mediate a weak attraction between the keratin surfaces. The origin of the attraction is a combination of bridging and electrostatics. The attraction disappears when the system moves away from the charge compensation point, or when excess small ions and/or NMF-representing free amino acids are added.


These results are in concordance with experimental observations, and support the idea that the interaction between keratin filaments, and ultimately in part the elastic properties of the keratin-containing tissue, is controlled by a combination of the physico-chemical properties of the disordered terminal domains and the composition of the medium in the inter-filament region.

Stratum corneum; Skin keratins; Intermediate filaments; Unstructured terminal domains; Bridging attraction