4.2 Epithelial Tissue

Learning Objectives

Describe the structural characteristics of the various epithelial tissues and how these characteristics enable their functions.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the general structure and function of epithelial tissue
  • Distinguish between tight junctions, anchoring junctions, and gap junctions
  • Distinguish between simple epithelia and stratified epithelia, as well as between squamous, cuboidal, and columnar epithelia
  • Describe the structure and function of endocrine and exocrine glands

Epithelial tissue primarily appears as large sheets of cells covering all surfaces of the body exposed to the external environment and lining internal body cavities.  In addition, epithelial tissue is responsible for forming a majority of glandular tissue found in the human body.

Epithelial tissue is derived from all three major embryonic layers. The epithelial tissue composing cutaneous membranes develops from the ectoderm.  Epithelial tissue composing a majority of the mucous membranes originate in the endoderm.  Epithelial tissue that lines vessels and open spaces within the body are derived from mesoderm.  Of particular note, epithelial tissue that lines vessels in the lymphatic and cardiovascular systems is called endothelium whereas epithelial tissue that forms the serous membranes lining the true cavities is called mesothelium.

Regardless of its location and function, all epithelial tissue shares important structural features. First, epithelial tissue is highly cellular, with little or no extracellular material present between cells. Second, adjoining cells form specialized intercellular connections called cell junctions. Third, epithelial cells exhibit polarity with differences in structure and function between the exposed, or apical, facing cell surface and the basal surface closest to the underlying tissue.  Fourth, epithelial tissues are avascular;  nutrients must enter the tissue by diffusion or absorption from underlying tissues or the surface.  Last,  epithelial tissue is capable of rapidly replacing damaged and dead cells, necessary with respect to the harsh environment this tissue encounters.

Epithelial Tissue Function:

Epithelial tissues provide the body’s first line of protection from physical, chemical, and biological damage. The cells of an epithelium act as gatekeepers of the body, controlling permeability by allowing selective transfer of materials across its surface. All substances that enter the body must cross an epithelium.

Many epithelial cells are capable of secreting mucous and other specific chemical compounds onto their apical surfaces.  For example, the epithelium of the small intestine releases digestive enzymes and cells lining the respiratory tract secrete mucous that traps incoming microorganisms and particles.

The Epithelial Cell

Epithelial cells are typically characterized by unequal distribution of organelles and membrane-bound proteins between their apical and basal surfaces.  Structures found on some epithelial cells are an adaptation to specific functions.  For example, cilia are extensions of the apical cell membrane that are supported by microtubules. These extensions beat in unison, allowing for the movement of fluids and particles along the surface.  Such ciliated epithelia line the ventricles of the brain where it helps circulate cerebrospinal fluid and line the respirtatory system where it helps sweep particles of dust and pathogens up and out of the respiratory tract.

Epithelial cells in close contact with underlying connective tissues secrete glycoproteins and collagen from their basal surface which forms the basal lamina.  The basal lamina interacts with the reticular lamina secreted by the underlying connective tissue, forming a basement membrane that helps anchor the layers together.

These three illustrations each show the edges of two vertical cell membranes. The cell membranes are viewed partially from the side so that the inside edge of the right cell membrane is visible. The upper left image shows a tight junction. The two cell membranes are bound by transmembrane protein strands. The proteins travel the inside edge of the right cell membrane and cross over to the left cell membrane, cinching the two membranes together. The cell membranes are still somewhat separated in between neighboring strands, creating intercellular spaces. The upper right diagram shows a gap junction. The gap junctions are composed of two interlocking connexins, which are round, hollow tubes that extend through the cell membranes. Two connexins, one from the left cell membrane and the other from the right cell membrane, meet between the two cells, forming a connexon. Even at the site of the connexon, there is a small gap between the cell membranes. On the inside edge of the right cell membrane, the gap junction appears as a depression. Three connexins are embedded into the membranes like buttons on a shirt. The bottom images show the three types of anchoring junctions. The left image shows a desmosome. Here, the inside edge of both the right and left cell membranes have brown, round plaques. Each plaque has tentacle-like intermediate filaments (keratin) that extend into each cell’s cytoplasm. The two plaques are connected across the intercellular space by several interlocking transmembrane glycoproteins (cadherin). The connected glycoproteins look similar to a zipped-up zipper between the right and left cell membranes. The right image shows an adheren. These are similar to desmosomes, with two plaques on the inside edge of each cell membrane connected across the intercellular space by glycoproteins. However, the plaques do not contain the tentacle-like intermediate filaments branching into the cytoplasm. Instead, the plaques are ribbed with green actin filaments. The filaments are neatly arranged in parallel, horizontal strands on the surface of the plaque facing the cytoplasm. The bottom image shows a hemidesmosome. Rather than located between two neighboring cells, the hemidesmosome is located between the bottom of a cell and the basement membrane. A hemidesmosome contains a single plaque on the inside edge of the cell membrane. Like the desmosome, intermediate filaments project from the plaque into the cytoplasm. The opposite side of the plaque has purple, knob-shaped integrins extending out to the basal lamina of the basement membrane.
Figure 4.2.1 – Types of Cell Junctions: The three basic types of cell-to-cell junctions are tight junctions, gap junctions, and anchoring junctions.

Cells of epithelia are closely connected with limited extracellular material present. Three basic types of connections may be present: tight junctions, anchoring junctions, and gap junctions (Figure 4.2.1).

Types of Cell Junctions

Epithelial cells are held close together by cell junctions.  The three basic types of cell-to-cell junctions are tight junctions, gap junctions, and anchoring junctions.

A Tight junction restricts the movement of fluids between adjacent cells due to the presence of integral proteins that fuse together to form a firm seal.  Tight junctions are observed in the epithelium of the urinary bladder, preventing the escape of fluids comprising the urine.

An anchoring junction provides a strong yet flexible connection between epithelial cells. There are three types of anchoring junctions: desmosomes, hemidesmosomes, and adherens. Desmosomes hold neighboring cells together by way of cadherin molecules which are embedded in protein plates in the cell membranes and link together between the adjacent cells.  Hemidesmosomes, which look like half a desmosome, link cells to components in the extracellular matrix, such as the basal lamina. While similar in appearance to desmosomes, hemidesmosomes use adhesion proteins called integrins rather than cadherins. Adherens use either cadherins or integrins depending on whether they are linking to other cells or matrix. These junctions are characterized by the presence of the contractile protein actin located on the cytoplasmic surface of the cell membrane.  These junctions influence the shape and folding of the epithelial tissue.

In contrast with the tight and anchoring junctions, a gap junction forms an intercellular passageway between the membranes of adjacent cells to facilitate the movement of small molecules and ions between cells. These junctions thus allow electrical and metabolic coupling of adjacent cells.

Classification of Epithelial Tissues

Epithelial tissues are classified according to the shape of the cells composing the tissue and by the number of cell layers present in the tissue.(Figure 4.2.2) Cell shapes are classified as being either squamous (flattened and thin), cuboidal (boxy, as wide as it is tall), or columnar (rectangular, taller than it is wide). Similarly, cells in the tissue can be arranged in a single layer, which is called simple epithelium, or more than one layer, which is called stratified epithelium.  Pseudostratified (pseudo- = “false”) describes an epithelial tissue with a single layer of irregularly shaped cells that give the appearance of more than one layer.  Transitional describes a form of specialized stratified epithelium in which the shape of the cells, and the number of layers present, can vary depending on the degree of stretch within a tissue.

This figure is a table showing the appearance of squamous, cuboidal and columnar epithelial tissues. Simple and compound forms are shown for each tissue type. In a simple squamous epithelium, the cells are flattened and single layered. In a simple cuboidal epithelium, the cells are cube shaped and single layered. In a simple columnar epithelium, the cells are rectangular and are attached to the basement membrane on one of their narrow sides, so that each cell is standing up like a column. There is only one layer of cells. In a pseudostratified columnar epithelium, the cells are column-like in appearance, but they vary in height. The taller cells bend over the tops of the shorter cells so that the top of the epithelial tissue is continuous. There is only one layer of cells. A stratified squamous epithelium contains many layers of flattened cells. Stratified cuboidal epithelium contains many layers of cube-shaped cells. Stratified columnar epithelium contains many layers of rectangular, column-shaped cells.
Figure 4.2.2 – Cells of Epithelial Tissue: Simple epithelial tissue is organized as a single layer of cells and stratified epithelial tissue is formed by several layers of cells.

Epithelial tissue is classified based on the shape of the cells present and the number of cell layers present.  Figure 4.2.2 summarizes the different categories of epithelial cell tissue cells.

External Website

Summary of Epithelial Tissue Cells

Watch this video to find out more about the anatomy of epithelial tissues. Where in the body would one find non-keratinizing stratified squamous epithelium?

Simple Epithelium

The cells in a simple squamous epithelium have the appearance of thin scales. The nuclei of squamous cells  tend to appear flat, horizontal, and elliptical, mirroring the form of the cell.   Simple squamous epithelium, because of the thinness of the cells, is present where rapid passage of chemical compounds is necessary such as the lining of capillaries and the small air sacs of the lung.  This epithelial type is also found composing the mesothelium which secretes serous fluid to lubricate the internal body cavities.

In simple cuboidal epithelium, the nucleus of the box-like cells appears round and is generally located near the center of the cell. These epithelia are involved in the secretion and absorptions of molecules requiring active transport. Simple cuboidal epithelia are observed in the lining of the kidney tubules and in the ducts of glands.

In simple columnar epithelium, the nucleus of the tall column-like cells tends to be elongated and located in the basal end of the cells. Like the cuboidal epithelia, this epithelium is active in the absorption and secretion of molecules using active transport. Simple columnar epithelium forms a majority of the digestive tract and some parts of the female reproductive tract. Ciliated columnar epithelium is composed of simple columnar epithelial cells with cilia on their apical surfaces. These epithelial cells are found in the lining of the fallopian tubes where the assist in the passage of the egg, and parts of the respiratory system, where the beating of the cilia helps remove particulate matter.

Pseudostratified columnar epithelium is a type of epithelium that appears to be stratified but instead consists of a single layer of irregularly shaped and differently sized columnar cells. In pseudostratified epithelium, nuclei of neighboring cells appear at different levels rather than clustered in the basal end. The arrangement gives the appearance of stratification, but in fact, all the cells are in contact with the basal lamina, although some do not reach the apical surface. Pseudostratified columnar epithelium is found in the respiratory tract, where some of these cells have cilia.

Both simple and pseudostratified columnar epithelia are heterogeneous epithelia because they include additional types of cells interspersed among the epithelial cells. For example, a goblet cell is a mucous-secreting unicellular gland interspersed between the columnar epithelial cells of a mucous membrane (Figure 4.2.3).
This illustration shows a diagram of a goblet cell. The goblet cell is shaped roughly like an upside down vase. The enlarged end at the top contains six finger like projections labeled microvilli. Between the microvilli, secretary vesicles containing mucin are moving from the upper half of the cell toward the microvilli. Below the secretory vesicles are several rough endoplasmic reticula and an irregularly shaped Golgi apparatus with secretory vesicles budding off of it. The narrow, lower half of the cell contains the oval-shaped nucleus as well as a few mitochondria and segments of the endoplasmic reticulum.

The second image is a micrograph of the innermost lining of the small intestine. This innermost lining is a simple columnar epithelium, with a single layer of rectangular cells oriented in a line. Occasionally, the line of epithelial cells is interrupted by a goblet cell. Goblet cells are thinner than the epithelial cells and appear roughly pill shaped. In this micrograph, the cells did not stain as darkly as the epithelial cells.
Figure – 4.2.3 Goblet Cell: (a) In the lining of the small intestine, columnar epithelium cells are interspersed with goblet cells. (b) The arrows in this micrograph point to the mucous-secreting goblet cells (LM × 1600). (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

External Website


View the University of Michigan WebScope at http://virtualslides.med.umich.edu/Histology/Digestive%20System/Intestines/169_HISTO_40X.svs/view.apml to explore the tissue sample in greater detail.

Stratified Epithelium

A stratified epithelium consists of multiple stacked layers of cells. This epithelium protects against physical and chemical damage. The stratified epithelium is named by the shape of the most apical layer of cells, closest to the free space.

Stratified squamous epithelium is the most common type of stratified epithelium in the human body. The apical cells appear squamous, whereas the basal layer contains either columnar or cuboidal cells. The top layer may be covered with dead cells containing keratin. The skin is an example of a keratinized, stratified squamous epithelium. Alternatively, the lining of the oral cavity is an example of an unkeratinized, stratified squamous epithelium. Stratified cuboidal epithelium and stratified columnar epithelium can also be found in certain glands and ducts, but are relatively rare in the human body.

Another kind of stratified epithelium is transitional epithelium, so-called because of the gradual changes in the shapes and layering of the cells as the epithelium lining the expanding hollow organ is stretched.  Transitional epithelium is found only in the urinary system, specifically the ureters and urinary bladder. When the bladder is empty, this epithelium is convoluted and has cuboidal-shaped apical cells with convex, umbrella shaped,  surfaces. As the bladder fills with urine, this epithelium loses its convolutions and the apical cells transition in appearance from cuboidal to squamous. It appears thicker and more multi-layered when the bladder is empty, and more stretched out and less stratified when the bladder is full and distended.

Glandular Epithelium

A gland is a structure made up of one or more cells modified to synthesize and secrete chemical substances. Most glands consist of groups of epithelial cells. A gland can be classified as an endocrine gland, a ductless gland that releases secretions directly into surrounding tissues and fluids (endo- = “inside”), or an exocrine gland whose secretions leave through a duct that opens to the external environment (exo- = “outside”).

Endocrine Glands

The secretions of endocrine glands are called hormones. Hormones are released into the interstitial fluid, diffuse into the bloodstream, and are delivered to cells that have receptors to bind the hormones. The endocrine system a major communication system coordinating the regulation and integration of body responses.  These glands will be discussed in much greater detail in a later chapter.

Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands release their contents through a duct or duct system that ultimately leads to the external environment. Mucous, sweat, saliva, and breast milk are all examples of secretions released by exocrine glands.

Glandular Structure

Exocrine glands are classified as either unicellular or multicellular. Unicellular glands are individual cells which are scattered throughout an epithelial lining.  Goblet cells are an example of a unicellular gland type found extensively in the mucous membranes of the small and large intestine.

Multicellular exocrine glands are composed of two or more cells which either secrete their contents directly into an inner body cavity (e.g., serous glands), or release their contents into a duct.  If there is a single duct carrying the contents to the external environment then the gland is referred to as a simple gland.  Multicellular glands that have ducts divided into one or more branches is called a compound gland (Figure 4.2.4).  In addition to the number of ducts present, multicellular glands are also classified based on the shape of the secretory portion of the gland.  Tubular glands have enlongated secretory regions (similar to a test tube in shape) while alveolar (acinar) glands have a secretory region that is spherical in shape.   Combinations of the two secretory regions are known as tubuloalveolar (tubuloacinar) glands.

This table shows the different types of exocrine glands: alveolar (acinar) versus tubular and those with simple ducts versus compound ducts. Each diagram shows a single layer of columnar epithelial cells with a line of cells travelling along the surface of a tissue (surface epithelium) and then dipping into a hole in the tissue. The cells travel down the right side of the hole until they reach the bottom, then curve around the bottom of the hole and then travel up the left side. Finally, the cells emerge back onto the surface of the tissue. The surface epithelial cells are those that are on the surface of the tissue; the duct cells are those that line both walls of the hole. The gland cells are those that line the bottom of the hole. The shape of the hole differs in each gland. In the simple alvelolar (acinar) gland, the duct and gland cells are bulb shaped with the gland cells being the larger end of the bulb. Simple alveolar glands are not found in adults, as these represent an early developmental stage of simple, branched glands. In simple tubular glands, the duct and gland cells are U shaped. Simple tubular glands are found in the intestinal glands. In simple branched alveolar glands, the gland cells form three bulbs at the end of the duct, similar in appearance to a clover leaf. The sebaceous (oil) glands are examples of simple branched alveolar glands. In simple coiled tubular glands, the duct and gland cells form a U, however, the bottom of the U, which is all gland cells, is curved up to the right. Merocrine sweat glands are examples of simple coiled tubular glands. In simple branched tubular glands, the duct is very short and the gland cells divide into three lobes, similar in appearance to a bird’s foot. The gastric glands of the stomach and mucous glands of the esophagus, tongue and duodenum are examples of simple branched tubular glands. Among the glands with compound ducts, compound alveolar (acinar) glands have three sets of clover leaf bulbs, for a total of six bulbs. Two of the clover leaf shaped structures extend parallel to the surface epithelium in opposite directions to each other. The third clover leaf extends down into the tissue, perpendicular to the surface. The duct is cross-shaped. The mammary glands are an example of compound alveolar glands. Compound tubular glands have a similar structure to compound alveolar glands. However, instead of three cloverleaf shaped bulbs, the compound tubular gland has three bird’s foot shaped bulbs. The duct is also cross-shaped in the compound tubular gland. The mucous glands of the mouth and the bulbourethral glands of the male reproductive system are examples of compound tubular glands, which are also found in the seminiferous tubules of the testis. Compound tubuloalveolar glands are a hybrid between the compound alveolar gland and the compound tubular gland. The two sets of bulbs that run parallel to the surface are bird-foot shaped; however, the set of bulbs that runs perpendicularly below the surface is cloverleaf shaped. The salivary glands, glands of the respiratory passages and glands of the pancreas are all compound tubuloalveolar glands.
Figure 4.2.4 – Types of Exocrine Glands: Exocrine glands are classified by their structure.

Exocrine glands are classified by the arrangement of ducts emptying the gland and the shape of the secretory region.

Methods and Types of Secretion
In addition to the glandular structure, exocrine glands can be classified by their mode of secretion and the nature of the substances released (Figure 4.2.5). Merocrine secretion is the most common type of exocrine secretion. The secretions are enclosed in vesicles that move to the apical surface of the cell where the contents are released by exocytosis. For example, saliva containing the glycoprotein mucin is a merocrine secretion.  The glands that produce and secrete sweat are another example of merocrine secretion.

These three diagrams show the three modes of secretion. All three diagrams show three orange cells in a line with attached to a basement membrane. Each cell has a large nucleus in its lower half. The upper half of each cell contains a Golgi apparatus, which appears like an upside down jellyfish. Yellow secretory vesicles are budding from the top end of the Golgi apparatus. Each vesicle contains several orange circles, which are the secreted substance. In merocrine secretion, the secretory vesicles travel to the top edge of the cells and release the secretion from the cell by melding with the cell membrane. In apocrine secretion, the top third of the cell, which contains the secretory vesicles, pinches in at the sides and then completely disconnects above the Golgi complex. The pinched off portion of the cell is the secretion, as it contains the majority of the secretory vesicles. In holocrine secretion, the upper third of the cell, just above the Golgi complex, forms many finger like projections. Each projection contains several vesicles. The tips of the projections that contain secretory vesicles bud off from the cell. In this method of secretion, the mature cell eventually dies and becomes the secretory product.
Figure 4.2.5 – Modes of Glandular Secretion: (a) In merocrine secretion, the cell remains intact. (b) In apocrine secretion, the apical portion of the cell is released, as well. (c) In holocrine secretion, the cell is destroyed as it releases its product and the cell itself becomes part of the secretion.

Apocrine secretion occurs when secretions accumulate near the apical portion of a secretory cell. That portion of the cell and its secretory contents pinch off from the cell and are released. The sweat glands of the armpit are classified as apocrine glands. Like merocrine glands, apocrine glands continue to produce and secrete their contents with little damage caused to the cell because the nucleus and golgi regions remain intact after the secretory event.

In contrast, the process of holocrine secretion involves the rupture and destruction of the entire gland cell. The cell accumulates its secretory products and releases them only when the cell bursts. New gland cells differentiate from cells in the surrounding tissue to replace those lost by secretion. The sebaceous glands that produce the oils on the skin and hair are an example of a holocrine glands (Figure 4.2.6).

Image A depicts a cross section of the skin layers. The surface of the skin is at the top of the diagram, with the outer layer occupying about one fifth of the cross section. The outer layer has an irregular border with the inner skin layer, which occupies the remainder of the cross section. A hair follicle is embedded within the inner layer. However, the outer layer actually invaginates into the inner layer around the outside of the follicle, completely sheathing the follicle. The follicle has a bulb at its bottom that is connected to blood vessels. The hair projects from the bulb and travels through the sheath to erupt from the skin surface. The sebaceous gland is an irregular, yellow structure attached at the midpoint of the hair shaft near the border between the inner and outer layers of skin. Its duct actually connects into the side of the hair follicle. Image B shows a micrograph of a sebaceous gland connected to a hair follicle. The bulb of the hair follicle is evident in the micrograph as a bundle of cell surrounding the growing hair at its center. The sebaceous gland is connected to the right of the follicle bulb. The gland appears as an oval shaped mass of pink staining, cube shaped cells with purple nuclei.
Figure 4.2.6 – Sebaceous Glands: These glands secrete oils that lubricate and protect the skin. They are holocrine glands and they are destroyed after releasing their contents. New glandular cells form to replace the cells that are lost (LM × 400). (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Glands are also named based on the  products they produce. A serous gland produces watery, blood-plasma-like secretions rich in enzymes, whereas a mucous gland releases a more viscous product rich in the glycoprotein mucin. Both serous and mucous secretions are common in the salivary glands of the digestive system.  Such glands releasing both serous and mucous secretions are often referred to as seromucous glands.

Chapter Review

In epithelial tissue, cells are closely packed with little or no extracellular matrix except for the basal lamina that separates the epithelium from underlying tissue. The main functions of epithelia are protection from the environment, coverage, secretion and excretion, absorption, and filtration. Cells are bound together by tight junctions that form an impermeable barrier. They can also be connected by gap junctions, which allow free exchange of soluble molecules between cells, and anchoring junctions, which attach cell to cell or cell to matrix. The different types of epithelial tissues are characterized by their cellular shapes and arrangements: squamous, cuboidal, or columnar epithelia. Single cell layers form simple epithelia, whereas stacked cells form stratified epithelia. Very few capillaries penetrate these tissues.

Glands are secretory tissues and organs that are derived from epithelial tissues. Exocrine glands release their products through ducts. Endocrine glands secrete hormones directly into the interstitial fluid and blood stream. Glands are classified both according to the type of secretion and by their structure. Merocrine glands secrete products as they are synthesized. Apocrine glands release secretions by pinching off the apical portion of the cell, whereas holocrine gland cells store their secretions until they rupture and release their contents. In this case, the cell becomes part of the secretion.

Interactive Link Questions

Watch this video to find out more about the anatomy of epithelial tissues. Where in the body would one find non-keratinizing stratified squamous epithelium?

The inside of the mouth, esophagus, vaginal canal, and anus.

Review Questions




Critical Thinking Questions

The structure of a tissue usually is optimized for its function. Describe how the structure of individual cells and tissue arrangement of the intestine lining matches its main function, to absorb nutrients.

Columnar epithelia, which form the lining of the digestive tract, can be either simple or stratified. The cells are long and narrow. The nucleus is elongated and located on the basal side of the cell. Ciliated columnar epithelium is composed of simple columnar epithelial cells that display cilia on their apical surfaces.

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