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Form and function of the apical extracellular matrix: new insights from Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, and the vertebrate inner ear.

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Apical extracellular matrices (aECMs) are the extracellular layers on the apical sides of epithelia. aECMs form the outer layer of the skin in most animals and line the luminal surface of internal tubular epithelia. Compared to the more conserved basal ECMs (basement membranes), aECMs are highly diverse between tissues and between organisms and have been more challenging to understand at mechanistic levels. Studies in several genetic model organisms are revealing new insights into aECM composition, biogenesis, and function and have begun to illuminate common principles and themes of aECM organization. There is emerging evidence that, in addition to mechanical or structural roles, aECMs can participate in reciprocal signaling with associated epithelia and other cell types. Studies are also revealing mechanisms underlying the intricate nanopatterns exhibited by many aECMs. In this review, we highlight recent findings from well-studied model systems, including the external cuticle and ductal aECMs of Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, and other insects and the internal aECMs of the vertebrate inner ear.

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