Control Embryonic Stem Cells With Light
UC San Francisco researchers have for the first time developed a method to precisely control embryonic stem cell differentiation with beams of light, enabling them to be transformed into neurons in response to a precise external cue.
The technique also revealed an internal timer within stem cells that lets them tune out extraneous biological noise but transform rapidly into mature cells when they detect a consistent, appropriate molecular signal, the authors report in a study published online Aug. 26 in Cell Systems.
“We’ve discovered a basic mechanism the cell uses to decide whether to pay attention to a developmental cue or to ignore it,” said senior author Matthew Thomson, PhD, a researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology and the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at UCSF.
During embryonic development, stem cells perform an elaborately timed dance as they transform from their neutral, undifferentiated form to construct all the major organ systems of the body. Researchers have identified many different molecular cues that signal stem cells when to transform into their mature form, whether it be brain or liver or muscle, at just the right time.
These discoveries have raised hopes that taking control of stem cells could let scientists repair damaged and aging tissues using the body’s own potential for regeneration. But so far, getting stem cells to follow instructions en masse has proven far more difficult than researchers once expected.