Gene profiling reveals the essence of 'stemness'

An extensive genetic comparison of different types of stem cells and terminally differentiated cells has revealed that hundreds of genes are likely to be involved in shaping the characteristic properties of stem cells. The studies show that embryonic, neural and hematopoietic (blood-cell-forming) stem cells seem to share a common genetic program that may be important for "stemness."

These initial gene-profiling studies provide basic information about the nature of stem cells that should aid long-term efforts to induce stem cells to differentiate into cells that can be used to replace tissue damaged by disease or trauma.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Douglas A. Melton and his colleagues at Harvard University described their findings in an article in the September 12, 2002, issue of Science Express, which provides rapid electronic publication of select articles that will appear in the journal Science.

"There has been a great deal of excitement about the possibility that adult stem cells are entirely plastic, that is, they are able to become any tissue in the body," said Melton. "However, there have been questions about whether such conclusions were correct. This led us to wonder if we could figure out whether stem cells were, in fact, all similar. And a related and critical scientific question is what genes or genetic programs are important for stem cells to have their special properties, or 'stemness.'"

To get at the answers to those questions, Melton and his colleagues developed experiments to survey thousands of genes in different kinds of stem cells and mature cells to determine if there are patterns of gene activity that are distinct to stem cells.

"We were quite stringent in our criteria for which stem cells to look at, choosing only those that everyone agreed were, indeed, stem cells," said Melton. The scientists compared embry

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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