Stem cell key identified
Scientists believe they have identified a key protein that keeps stem cells primed and ready to turn into any cell type when needed. Without the protein called Mof, embryonic stem cells did not differentiate into specialised cells when injected into mice. The findings will help scientists understand how to control stem cell differentiation into tissues and even organs that can be used to repair the body following disease or injury.
With the ability to develop into any cells type, stem cells hold huge promise. As all cells contain the same set of genes, the cell type that one becomes depends on which genes are active and which are not, for many, once they are inactivated they cannot be turned on again. The unique feature of stem cells is that their genes are not stuck on or off, meaning that any developmental destiny remains open.
The researchers found that Mof is the gatekeeper for a signalling pathway that controls the activity of the genes affecting development of stem cells into other forms. No other protein has been found to have this role. Research also revealed that Mof is the same in both fruit flies and mice, suggesting its role is the same in many species, including humans.
Proteins under the control of Mof place molecular tags on DNA, signalling to the cellular machinery that “reads” the genes. The tags also affect how tightly bundled the DNA is and therefore how accessible it is. When chemicals or signals from other cells instruct the stem cells to differentiate it is Mof that appears to control the process. Scientists are still trying to understand how to control this process so the finding that Mof holds the key is an important discovery that could prove useful for many stem cell technologies.