We have developed a new concept of cell–cell adhesion termed ‘hyper-adhesion’, the very strong adhesion adopted by desmosomes. This uniquely desmosomal property accounts for their ability to provide the intercellular links in the desmosome–intermediate filament complex. These links are targeted by diseases, resulting in disruption of the complex with severe consequences. Hyper-adhesion is characteristic of desmosomes in tissues and is believed to result from a highly ordered arrangement of the extracellular domains of the desmosomal cadherins that locks their binding interaction so that it is highly resistant to disruption. This ordered arrangement may be reflected by and dependent upon a similarly ordered molecular structure of the desmosomal plaque. Hyper-adhesion can be down-regulated to a more weakly adhesive state by cell signalling involving protein kinase C, which translocates to the desmosomal plaque. Down-regulation takes place in wound edge epithelium and appears to be accompanied by loss of the ordered arrangement causing desmosomes to adopt the type of weaker adhesion characteristic of adherens junctions. We review the evidence for hyper-adhesion and speculate on the molecular basis of its mechanism.

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