New insight into what stem cells are and how they behave could help scientists to grow cells that form different tissues.
A study at the University of Edinburgh has shown that embryonic stem cells consist of cells that switch back and forth between precursors of different cell types. This may be linked to their potential to become any cell type in the body.
The findings could help scientists catch embryonic stem cells at exactly the right point when they are primed to differentiate into cells that form specific tissues.
The study indicates that embryonic stem cells are not a single cell type as previously thought, but comprise a mixture of different cell types from the early embryo that can transform themselves from one type to another.
Scientists previously thought that embryonic stem cells were only able to become the embryonic precursors for adult cells, a property known as pluripotency.
The researchers have now found that they can also turn into cells associated with the placenta. These cells – known as the primitive endoderm - form the yolk sac that helps provide nutrients to the early embryo.
The study, published in the journal PLoS Biology, also shows that embryonic stem cells are able to alternate and transform themselves between cells that create the primitive endoderm and founder embryonic cells, which will go onto form tissues in the body.
Although cells in early embryonic development switch back and forth between these two different cells, signals received from surrounding cells and the embryonic environment allow them to quickly fix on becoming one specific cell type.
However, in the laboratory embryonic stem cells are grown in a dish away from the embryo and as a result exist in a captured state where their identity does not become fixed.
Scientists hope that better understanding of how embryonic stem cells change will enable them create an environment to encourage growth of specific cells.
Dr Josh Brickman, from the University's Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: "This study changes our view of what embryonic stem cells are and how they behave. Knowing that embryonic stem cells can switch between different founder cell types could help us isolate cells at a point in time when they are primed to become specific cells. This could improve the ability to produce specific cells in the laboratory."
The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and Scottish Funding Council.
Tara Womersley, Press and PR office Tel 0131 650 9836, Mobile 07791 355804 Email Tara.Womersley@ed.ac.uk
Notes to editors
For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk
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