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Scientists Reprogram Mice Embryonic Stem Cells To Exhibit Developmental Characteristics As Fertilized Eggs

Update Date: Jan 16, 2017 07:39 PM EST

The discovery of stem cells revolutionized medicine as groundbreaking discoveries emerge to look for ways to treat diseases. Now, a team of scientists discovered a way to reprogram the embryonic stem cells of mice so they would exhibit the same developmental characteristics of fertilized eggs.

Researchers at the UC Berkeley discovered a way to reprogram "totipotent-like" stem cells that are able to generate not only all cell types in a developing embryo but also cell types that make way for nutrient transfer between the mother and the embryo.

Published in the journal Science, the study shows how the discovery will help scientists gain understanding on the first molecular decisions made in the early embryo. Moreover, this discovery would widen the range of tissues that can be produced from stem cells, paving way for future developments in the field of cell-based therapy and regenerative medicine.

Restrictive Potential

Normally, a fertilized egg is known to possess full developmental potential as it is able to produce all cell types required for embryo gestation. For placental mammals, including humans, the presence of extra-embryonic tissues like the placenta and yolk sac is important for nutrient and waste exchange between the mother and the fetus.

On the other hand, embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells are more restricted in terms of their developmental potential. This means that they can produce embryonic cell types but not extra-embryonic tissues.

The scientists in the study were able to reprogram the embryonic stem cells of mice so they could mimic the developmental characteristics of zygotes.

"Studies on embryonic development greatly benefit from the culture system of embryonic stem cells and, more recently, induced pluripotent stem cells. These experimental systems allow scientists to dissect key molecular pathways that specify cell fate decisions in embryonic development," Lin He, a UC Berkeley, lead author of the study, said in a press release by UC Berkeley.

"But the unique developmental potential of a zygote, formed right after the sperm and egg meet, is very, very difficult to study, due to limited materials and the lack of a cell-culture experimental system," she added.

Tweaking A Single MicroRNA

The researchers found that manipulating a single microRNA could help expand the potential of embryonic stem cells. In the experiments the team conducted, about 20 percent of embryonic stem cells lacking the microRNA showed expanded fate potential.

"What is quite amazing is that manipulating just a single microRNA was able to greatly expand cell fate decisions of embryonic stem cells," Lin He explained.

"This finding not only identifies a new mechanism that regulates totipotent stem cells but also reveals the importance of non-coding RNAs in stem cell fate," he added.

Stem cells not only revolutionized the treatment of cancer but also laid foundations for regenerative medicine and triggered the emergence of biomedical industries, the Globe and Mail reports. Now, this new breakthrough discovery can help scientists and health experts find means to produce stem cells to help cure diseases and develop cell-based therapies in the future.

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