When is a stem cell not really a stem cell?

Aug 26, 2007

Working with embryonic mouse brains, a team of Johns Hopkins scientists seems to have discovered an almost-too-easy way to distinguish between “true” neural stem cells and similar, but less potent versions. Their finding, reported this week in Nature, could simplify the isolation of stem cells not only from brain but also other body tissues.

What the researchers identified is a specific protein “signal” that appears to prevent neural stem cells – the sort that might be used to rebuild a damaged nervous system – from taking their first step toward becoming neurons. “Stem cells don’t instantly convert into functional adult tissue,” says author Nicholas Gaiano, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Institute for Cell Engineering. “They undergo a stepwise maturation where they gradually shed their stem cell properties.”

The first step turns stem cells into “progenitor” cells by dictating how signals downstream of a protein called Notch, which regulates stem cells in many different tissues, are transmitted. One well known target of Notch is a protein called CBF1. To help study Notch signaling further, Gaiano and his team created genetically engineered mouse embryos that glow green when CBF1 is turned on.

To their surprise, they noticed that during brain development some of the brain cells generally thought to be neural stem cells stopped glowing, indicating that the CBF1 protein was no longer active in them. A closer look revealed that those cells that went dark were in fact no longer true neural stem cells, which can form all major brain cell types, but instead had aged into progenitor cells, which form mostly neurons.

They tested whether CBF1 was the critical switch by chemically knocking out the protein in neural stem cells. The knockout got the stem cells to rapidly convert to progenitor cells. “However, if we activated the CBF1 protein in progenitor cells we couldn’t get them to shift back into stem cells,” says Gaiano. “So whatever happens biochemically once CBF1 is turned off seems to create a one-way street.”

Another recent study, using the mouse line generated by the Gaiano group, found that CBF1 signaling may play the same role in blood stem cells, leading Gaiano to suspect that his team’s discovery might be a general “switch” distinguishing stem cells from progenitors in many different tissues.

Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

Explore further: Famed Galapagos tortoise 'Pepe the Missionary' dies

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mexico acid leak leaves orange river, toxic water

18 hours ago

Ramona Yesenia stood in her town square with two empty jugs, waiting for water to replace the municipal supply contaminated by a chemical spill that turned Mexico's Sonora river orange.

Recommended for you

Researchers look at small RNA pathways in maize tassels

Aug 22, 2014

Researchers at the University of Delaware and other institutions across the country have been awarded a four-year, $6.5 million National Science Foundation grant to analyze developmental events in maize anthers ...

How plant cell compartments change with cell growth

Aug 22, 2014

A research team led by Kiminori Toyooka from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science has developed a sophisticated microscopy technique that for the first time captures the detailed movement of ...

Plants can 'switch off' virus DNA

Aug 22, 2014

A team of virologists and plant geneticists at Wageningen UR has demonstrated that when tomato plants contain Ty-1 resistance to the important Tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV), parts of the virus DNA ...

User comments : 0