- Summarize how a cell can differentiate into a specialized cell
How does a complex organism such as a human develop from a single cell—a fertilized egg—into the vast array of cell types such as nerve cells, muscle cells, and epithelial cells that characterize the adult? Throughout development and adulthood, the process of cellular differentiation leads cells to assume their final morphology and physiology. Differentiation is the process by which unspecialized cells become specialized to carry out distinct functions.
A stem cell is an unspecialized cell that can divide without limit as needed and can, under specific conditions, differentiate into specialized cells. Stem cells are divided into several categories according to their potential to differentiate. The first embryonic cells that arise from the division of the zygote are the ultimate stem cells; these stems cells are described as totipotent because they have the potential to differentiate into any of the cells needed to enable an organism to grow and develop. The embryonic cells that develop from totipotent stem cells and are precursors to the fundamental tissue layers of the embryo are classified as pluripotent. A pluripotent stem cell is one that has the potential to differentiate into any type of human tissue but cannot support the full development of an organism. These cells then become slightly more specialized, and are referred to as multipotent cells. A multipotent stem cell has the potential to differentiate into different types of cells within a given cell lineage or small number of lineages, such as a red blood cell or white blood cell.
Finally, multipotent cells can become further specialized oligopotent cells. An oligopotent stem cell is limited to becoming one of a few different cell types. In contrast, a unipotent cell is fully specialized and can only reproduce to generate more of its own specific cell type. Stem cells are unique in that they can also continually divide and regenerate new stem cells instead of further specializing.
There are different stem cells present at different stages of a human’s life, including the embryonic stem cells of the embryo, fetal stem cells of the fetus, and adult stem cells in the adult. One type of adult stem cell is the epithelial stem cell, which gives rise to the keratinocytes (cells that produce keratin, the primary protein in nails and hair) in the multiple layers of epithelial cells in the epidermis of skin. Adult bone marrow has three distinct types of stem cells: hematopoietic stem cells, which give rise to red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets; endothelial stem cells, which give rise to the endothelial cell types that line blood and lymph vessels; and mesenchymal stem cells, which give rise to the different types of muscle cells.
When a cell differentiates (i.e., becomes more specialized), it may undertake major changes in its size, shape, metabolic activity, and overall function. Because all cells in the body, beginning with the fertilized egg, contain the same DNA, how do the different cell types come to be so different? The answer is analogous to a movie script. Different actors in a movie all read from the same script, but each one only reads their own part of the script. Similarly, all cells contain the same full complement of DNA, but each type of cell only “reads” the portions of DNA that are relevant to its own functioning. In other terms, each cell has the genome but will only express specific genes, thereby having unique proteomes. In biology, this is referred to as the unique genetic expression of each cell. In order for a cell to differentiate into its specialized form and function, it need only manipulate those genes (and thus those proteins) that will be expressed, and not those that will remain silent.
The primary mechanism by which genes are turned “on” or “off” is through transcription factors. A transcription factor is one of a class of proteins that bind to specific genes on the DNA molecule and either promote or inhibit their transcription. The primary mechanism that determines which genes will be expressed and which ones will not is through the use of different transcription factor proteins, which bind to DNA and promote or hinder the transcription of different genes. Through the action of these transcription factors, cells specialize into one of hundreds of different cell types in the human body.
- Different types of stem cells exhibit varying abilities to differentiate into specialized cells (from the most unlimited stem cell to the most restricted): totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent to oligopotent.
- Totipotent cells have the potential to differentiate into any of the cells needed to enable an organism to grow and develop; pluripotent cells have the potential to differentiate into any type of human tissue but cannot support the full development of an organism.
- A multipotent stem cell has the potential to differentiate into different types of cells within a given cell lineage or small number of lineages, while an oligopotent stem cell is limited to becoming one of a few different cell types.
- The process of cellular differentiation is under strict regulation by transcription factors which can either activate or repress expression of genes that will affect the proteome of the cell and thus, provide the necessary components it needs to become a specialized cell.
- All cells contain the same complement of DNA, or genome, but once differentiation occurs, it is the changes in the proteome that will distinguish one cell type from another.
- differentiate: to produce distinct cells, organs or to achieve specific functions by a process of development
- proteome: the complete set of proteins encoded by a particular genome
- transcription: the synthesis of RNA under the direction of DNA