A little-known lipid plays a big role in helping us grow from a hollow sphere of stem cells into human beings, researchers have found.
They found that in the first few days of life, ceramide helps stem cells line up to form the primitive ectoderm from which embryonic tissues develop, says Dr. Erhard Bieberich, biochemist at the Medical College of Georgia.
Probably 90 percent of ceramide gathers at the top or apical end of these early stem cells, literally helping cells have direction. "We have cell polarity, an up and down, a head and foot of the cell, and that is what ceramide most likely regulates," says Dr. Bieberich. "Cell polarity is absolutely essential for differentiation; otherwise you have a ball of cells, not organized tissue."
In fact, we start out as a wad of cells, but within 24 hours, some cells die and others become part of the hollow sphere with an inner layer -- the primitive ectoderm -- that will further differentiate into an embryo, and an outer layer -- the primitive endoderm -- that sustains the embryo during development.
"Ceramide distributes to the apical end of the cell," says Kannan Krishnamurthy, MCG graduate student and first author of the study published in the Feb. 2 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. "In this case, the basal end, or lower end, is attached to the outer layer while the apical end points toward the sphere's cavity."
Cells make ceramide, which researchers are finding has many different jobs in the developing and mature body. Like other lipids, it helps make up membranes throughout the body, it has an insulation role in the skin and it is a precursor for the protective coating of nerves, called myelin.
"There is more and more evidence that ceramide not only is a structural lipid but a messenger involved in signal transduction, in telling proteins what to do," says Dr. Guanghu Wang, MCG research assistant scientist who shares first authorship.
Contact: Toni Baker
Medical College of Georgia