Résumé : The skin epidermis ensures critical vital functions: it represents the first line of defense against external aggressions.

The Epidermal Proliferative Unit (EPU) and the stochastic model are two opposite theories that have been proposed to explain the homeostasis of the interfollicular epidermis (IFE). During my thesis, we addressed this question. We used two inducible CREER transgenic mouse models (K14CREER and InvCREER) to labeled basal cells of the IFE using the RosaYFP reporter system, allowing us to follow their fate. Using confocal microscopy to analyze the basal YFP positive clones induced, we demonstrated the existence of two distinct basal progenitors. The mathematical modeling of our data set confirmed this observation and clearly demonstrated the existence of a quiescent stem cell (SC) population (targeted by the K14 promoter), which eventually gives rise to a more rapidly proliferating cells, the committed progenitors (CPs, targeted by the Inv promoter) that participate actively to replace the IFE cells lost during the normal turnover of the tissue. By using an independent genetic mouse model (K5tTA tetO-H2BGFP) and by studying the transcriptional profiling of the two basal populations, we confirmed our hypothesis, and thus reconciling the two seemingly opposite EPU and stochastic models. Finally, we challenged the function of the K14 SCs and Inv CPs during IFE wound healing. Conversely to what happens during homeostasis, we observed that SCs are massively proliferating and participating to the repair and maintenance of the damaged area, while CPs are poorly recruited to the wound.

The skin is also a highly sensitive organ, which contains many different receptors specialized in a precise sensation, and richly innervated by somatosensory neurons.

The Merkel Cells (MCs) are mechanoreceptors present in the basal layer of the IFE that have features of both neurons and keratinocytes, and might be implicated in the development of a rare but very aggressive skin tumor. Since their discovery in 1875, many studies claimed the neural crest cells (NCCs) or the epidermal progenitors are at the origin of MC, but no clear evidence has been proposed.

During my thesis, we were also interested in the embryonic origin of the MC. We used different transgenic mouse models to assess the NCC (Wnt1CRE and Pax3CRE RosaYFP) and the epidermal (K14CRE RosaYFP) hypotheses and we finally demonstrated that MC arise from embryonic epidermal progenitors. Using induction of adult epidermis transgenic mouse (K14CREER RosaYFP, K15CREPR RosaYFP), we showed that the epidermis also participates to the renewing of adult MC. Finally, we deleted the Math1 gene in all the MC progenitors (K14CRE Mathfl/fl) of mouse embryos, resulting in the absence of MCs in adult mice, demonstrating the importance of this transcription factor for MCs specification during embryogenesis.