Study shows frogs can play key role in stem cell research

It sounds like one of those curiosities which pops up in wildlife documentaries, but the African clawed frog could prove a powerful ally for scientists working in the key area of stem cell research. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered that the distinctive species which has become popular in recent years as a domestic pet shares with humans the same genetic mechanism that enables embryonic stem cells to divide without limit. This process, which gives embryonic stem cells the capacity to become any of the 200 cell types in the body, is fundamental to all research in the discipline.

Until now, stem cells have been obtained from mice, primates and humans, but never from amphibians. But, because the African clawed frog is easier to study than mice and humans, the Edinburgh team anticipate that it will become an important research tool in their quest to understand and, ultimately, treat disease using stem cells. The results of their study are published in the current edition of the journal Development.

The key protein in humans, called Oct4, which governs the process of unlimited division of stem cells, has an equivalent in the African clawed frog, called PouV. This new research shows that the two proteins are not only similar, but perform the same function both bind to DNA and activate certain genes that keep stem cells dividing. Indeed, embryonic stem cells lacking the Oct4 protein stop dividing and become specialised.

In the study, Dr Gillian Morrison introduced frog PouV proteins into mouse embryonic stem cells lacking Oct4 and found that the frog proteins "rescued" the stem cells in other words, the cells recovered their ability to divide without limit. Dr Morrison obtained similar effects when she introduced PouV proteins from another amphibian, the axolotl (a type of salamander).

To find out exactly what function PouV proteins perform in frog embryos, Dr Morrison injected special compounds into very young

Contact: Ana Coutinho
University of Edinburgh

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