Cell potency

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Cell potential, based on the 2007 works of Hans R. Schöler "The Potential of Stem Cells: An Inventory", is a cell's ability to differentiate into other cell types. [1] [2] [3] The more cell types a cell can differentiate into, the greater its potency. Potency is also described as the gene activation potential within a cell, which like a continuum, begins with totipotency to designate a cell with the most differentiation potential, pluripotency, multipotency, oligopotency, and finally unipotency.


Pluripotent, embryonic stem cells originate as inner mass cells within a blastocyst. These stem cells can become any tissue in the body, excluding a placenta. Only the morula's cells are totipotent, able to become all tissues and a placenta. Stem cells diagram.png
Pluripotent, embryonic stem cells originate as inner mass cells within a blastocyst. These stem cells can become any tissue in the body, excluding a placenta. Only the morula's cells are totipotent, able to become all tissues and a placenta.


Totipotency (Lat. totipotentia, "ability for all [things]") is the ability of a single cell to divide and produce all of the differentiated cells in an organism. Spores and zygotes are examples of totipotent cells. [4] In the spectrum of cell potency, totipotency represents the cell with the greatest differentiation potential, being able to differentiate into any embryonic cell, as well as extraembryonic cells. In contrast, pluripotent cells can only differentiate into embryonic cells. [5] [6]

It is possible for a fully differentiated cell to return to a state of totipotency. [7] This conversion to totipotency is complex, not fully understood and the subject of recent research. Research in 2011 has shown that cells may differentiate not into a fully totipotent cell, but instead into a "complex cellular variation" of totipotency. [8] Stem cells resembling totipotent blastomeres from 2-cell stage embryos can arise spontaneously in mouse embryonic stem cell cultures [9] [10] and also can be induced to arise more frequently in vitro through down-regulation of the chromatin assembly activity of CAF-1. [11]

The human development model is one which can be used to describe how totipotent cells arise. [12] Human development begins when a sperm fertilizes an egg and the resulting fertilized egg creates a single totipotent cell, a zygote. [13] In the first hours after fertilization, this zygote divides into identical totipotent cells, which can later develop into any of the three germ layers of a human (endoderm, mesoderm, or ectoderm), or into cells of the placenta (cytotrophoblast or syncytiotrophoblast). After reaching a 16-cell stage, the totipotent cells of the morula differentiate into cells that will eventually become either the blastocyst's Inner cell mass or the outer trophoblasts. Approximately four days after fertilization and after several cycles of cell division, these totipotent cells begin to specialize. The inner cell mass, the source of embryonic stem cells, becomes pluripotent.

Research on Caenorhabditis elegans suggests that multiple mechanisms including RNA regulation may play a role in maintaining totipotency at different stages of development in some species. [14] Work with zebrafish and mammals suggest a further interplay between miRNA and RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) in determining development differences. [15]

Primordial germ cells

In mouse primordial germ cells, genome-wide reprogramming leading to totipotency involves erasure of epigenetic imprints. Reprogramming is facilitated by active DNA demethylation involving the DNA base excision repair enzymatic pathway. [16] This pathway entails erasure of CpG methylation (5mC) in primordial germ cells via the initial conversion of 5mC to 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC), a reaction driven by high levels of the ten-eleven dioxygenase enzymes TET-1 and TET-2. [17]


A: Human embryonic stem cells (cell colonies that are not yet differentiated).
B: Nerve cells Human embryonic stem cells.png
A: Human embryonic stem cells (cell colonies that are not yet differentiated).
B: Nerve cells

In cell biology, pluripotency (Lat. pluripotentia, "ability for many [things]") [18] refers to a stem cell that has the potential to differentiate into any of the three germ layers: endoderm (interior stomach lining, gastrointestinal tract, the lungs), mesoderm (muscle, bone, blood, urogenital), or ectoderm (epidermal tissues and nervous system), but not into extra-embryonic tissues like the placenta. [19] However, cell pluripotency is a continuum, ranging from the completely pluripotent cell that can form every cell of the embryo proper, e.g., embryonic stem cells and iPSCs (see below), to the incompletely or partially pluripotent cell that can form cells of all three germ layers but that may not exhibit all the characteristics of completely pluripotent cells.

Induced pluripotency

Induced pluripotent stem cells, commonly abbreviated as iPS cells or iPSCs, are a type of pluripotent stem cell artificially derived from a non-pluripotent cell, typically an adult somatic cell, by inducing a "forced" expression of certain genes and transcription factors. [20] These transcription factors play a key role in determining the state of these cells and also highlights the fact that these somatic cells do preserve the same genetic information as early embryonic cells. [21] The ability to induce cells into a pluripotent state was initially pioneered in 2006 using mouse fibroblasts and four transcription factors, Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc; [22] this technique, called reprogramming, later earned Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. [23] This was then followed in 2007 by the successful induction of human iPSCs derived from human dermal fibroblasts using methods similar to those used for the induction of mouse cells. [24] These induced cells exhibit similar traits to those of embryonic stem cells (ESCs) but do not require the use of embryos. Some of the similarities between ESCs and iPSCs include pluripotency, morphology, self-renewal ability, a trait that implies that they can divide and replicate indefinitely, and gene expression. [25]

Epigenetic factors are also thought to be involved in the actual reprogramming of somatic cells in order to induce pluripotency. It has been theorized that certain epigenetic factors might actually work to clear the original somatic epigenetic marks in order to acquire the new epigenetic marks that are part of achieving a pluripotent state. Chromatin is also reorganized in iPSCs and becomes like that found in ESCs in that it is less condensed and therefore more accessible. Euchromatin modifications are also common which is also consistent with the state of euchromatin found in ESCs. [25]

Due to their great similarity to ESCs, iPSCs have been of great interest to the medical and research community. iPSCs could potentially have the same therapeutic implications and applications as ESCs but without the controversial use of embryos in the process, a topic of great bioethical debate. In fact, the induced pluripotency of somatic cells into undifferentiated iPS cells was originally hailed as the end of the controversial use of embryonic stem cells. However, iPSCs were found to be potentially tumorigenic, and, despite advances, [20] were never approved for clinical stage research in the United States. Setbacks such as low replication rates and early senescence have also been encountered when making iPSCs, [26] hindering their use as ESCs replacements.

Additionally, it has been determined that the somatic expression of combined transcription factors can directly induce other defined somatic cell fates (transdifferentiation); researchers identified three neural-lineage-specific transcription factors that could directly convert mouse fibroblasts (skin cells) into fully functional neurons. [27] This result challenges the terminal nature of cellular differentiation and the integrity of lineage commitment; and implies that with the proper tools, all cells are totipotent and may form all kinds of tissue.

Some of the possible medical and therapeutic uses for iPSCs derived from patients include their use in cell and tissue transplants without the risk of rejection that is commonly encountered. iPSCs can potentially replace animal models unsuitable as well as in vitro models used for disease research. [28]

Naive human pluripotent stem cell colony here seen growing on feeder cells (mouse). Naive-hPSC.tif
Naive human pluripotent stem cell colony here seen growing on feeder cells (mouse).

Naive vs. primed pluripotency states

Recent findings with respect to epiblasts before and after implantation have produced proposals for classifying pluripotency into two distinct phases: "naive" and "primed". [29] The baseline stem cells commonly used in science that are referred as embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from a pre-implantation epiblast; such epiblast is able to generate the entire fetus, and one epiblast cell is able to contribute to all cell lineages if injected into another blastocyst. On the other hand, several marked differences can be observed between the pre- and post-implantation epiblasts, such as their difference in morphology, in which the epiblast after implantation changes its morphology into a cup-like shape called the "egg cylinder" as well as chromosomal alteration in which one of the X-chromosomes under random inactivation in the early stage of the egg cylinder, known as X-inactivation. [30] During this development, the egg cylinder epiblast cells are systematically targeted by Fibroblast growth factors, Wnt signaling, and other inductive factors via the surrounding yolk sac and the trophoblast tissue, [31] such that they become instructively specific according to the spatial organization. [32]

Another major difference that was observed, with respect to cell potency, is that post-implantation epiblast stem cells are unable to contribute to blastocyst chimeras, [33] which distinguishes them from other known pluripotent stem cells. Cell lines derived from such post-implantation epiblasts are referred to as epiblast-derived stem cells which were first derived in laboratory in 2007; despite their nomenclature, that both ESCs and EpiSCs are derived from epiblasts, just at difference phases of development, and that pluripotency is still intact in the post-implantation epiblast, as demonstrated by the conserved expression of Nanog, Fut4, and Oct-4 in EpiSCs, [34] until somitogenesis and can be reversed midway through induced expression of Oct-4. [35]

Native pluripotency in plants

In roots

Un-induced pluripotency has been observed in root meristem tissue culture, especially by Kareem et al 2015, Kim et al 2018, and Rosspopoff et al 2017. This pluripotency is regulated by various regulators, including PLETHORA 1 and PLETHORA 2; and PLETHORA 3, PLETHORA 5, and PLETHORA 7, whose expression were found by Kareem to be auxin-provoked. (These are also known as PLT1, PLT2, PLT3, PLT5, PLT7, and expressed by genes of the same names). As of 2019 this is expected to open up future research into pluripotency in root tissues. [36]


Hematopoietic stem cells are an example of multipotency. When they differentiate into myeloid or lymphoid progenitor cells, they lose potency and become oligopotent cells with the ability to give rise to all cells of its lineage. Hematopoiesis (human) diagram en.svg
Hematopoietic stem cells are an example of multipotency. When they differentiate into myeloid or lymphoid progenitor cells, they lose potency and become oligopotent cells with the ability to give rise to all cells of its lineage.

Multipotency describes progenitor cells which have the gene activation potential to differentiate into discrete cell types. For example, a multipotent blood stem cell —and this cell type can differentiate itself into several types of blood cell like lymphocytes, monocytes, neutrophils, etc., but it is still ambiguous whether HSC possess the ability to differentiate into brain cells, bone cells or other non-blood cell types.[ citation needed ]

New research related to multipotent cells suggests that multipotent cells may be capable of conversion into unrelated cell types. In another case, human umbilical cord blood stem cells were converted into human neurons. [37] Research is also focusing on converting multipotent cells into pluripotent cells. [38]

Multipotent cells are found in many, but not all human cell types. Multipotent cells have been found in cord blood, [39] adipose tissue, [40] cardiac cells, [41] bone marrow, and mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) which are found in the third molar. [42]

MSCs may prove to be a valuable source for stem cells from molars at 8–10 years of age, before adult dental calcification. MSCs can differentiate into osteoblasts, chondrocytes, and adipocytes. [43]


In biology, oligopotency is the ability of progenitor cells to differentiate into a few cell types. It is a degree of potency. Examples of oligopotent stem cells are the lymphoid or myeloid stem cells. [2] A lymphoid cell specifically, can give rise to various blood cells such as B and T cells, however, not to a different blood cell type like a red blood cell. [44] Examples of progenitor cells are vascular stem cells that have the capacity to become both endothelial or smooth muscle cells.


In cell biology, a unipotent cell is the concept that one stem cell has the capacity to differentiate into only one cell type. It is currently unclear if true unipotent stem cells exist. Hepatoblasts, which differentiate into hepatocytes (which constitute most of the liver) or cholangiocytes (epithelial cells of the bile duct), are bipotent. [45] A close synonym for unipotent cell is precursor cell.

See also

Related Research Articles

Human cloning Creation of a genetically identical copy of a human

Human cloning is the creation of a genetically identical copy of a human. The term is generally used to refer to artificial human cloning, which is the reproduction of human cells and tissue. It does not refer to the natural conception and delivery of identical twins. The possibility of person cloning has raised controversies. These ethical concerns have prompted several nations to pass laws regarding human cloning and its legality.

Stem cell Undifferentiated biological cells that can differentiate into specialized cells

In multicellular organisms, stem cells are undifferentiated or partially differentiated cells that can differentiate into various types of cells and proliferate indefinitely to produce more of the same stem cell. They are the earliest type of cell in a cell lineage. They are found in both embryonic and adult organisms, but they have slightly different properties in each. They are usually distinguished from progenitor cells, which cannot divide indefinitely, and precursor or blast cells, which are usually committed to differentiating into one cell type.

Transdifferentiation, also known as lineage reprogramming, is an artificial process in which one mature somatic cell is transformed into another mature somatic cell without undergoing an intermediate pluripotent state or progenitor cell type. It is a type of metaplasia, which includes all cell fate switches, including the interconversion of stem cells. Current uses of transdifferentiation include disease modeling and drug discovery and in the future may include gene therapy and regenerative medicine. The term 'transdifferentiation' was originally coined by Selman and Kafatos in 1974 to describe a change in cell properties as cuticle producing cells became salt-secreting cells in silk moths undergoing metamorphosis.

Cellular differentiation Process in which relatively unspecialized cells acquire specialized features

Cellular differentiation is the process in which a cell changes from one cell type to another. Usually, the cell changes to a more specialized type. Differentiation occurs numerous times during the development of a multicellular organism as it changes from a simple zygote to a complex system of tissues and cell types. Differentiation continues in adulthood as adult stem cells divide and create fully differentiated daughter cells during tissue repair and during normal cell turnover. Some differentiation occurs in response to antigen exposure. Differentiation dramatically changes a cell's size, shape, membrane potential, metabolic activity, and responsiveness to signals. These changes are largely due to highly controlled modifications in gene expression and are the study of epigenetics. With a few exceptions, cellular differentiation almost never involves a change in the DNA sequence itself. Although metabolic composition does get altered quite dramatically where stem cells are characterized by abundant metabolites with highly unsaturated structures whose levels decrease upon differentiation. Thus, different cells can have very different physical characteristics despite having the same genome.

Germ cell Gamete-producing cell

A germ cell is any biological cell that gives rise to the gametes of an organism that reproduces sexually. In many animals, the germ cells originate in the primitive streak and migrate via the gut of an embryo to the developing gonads. There, they undergo meiosis, followed by cellular differentiation into mature gametes, either eggs or sperm. Unlike animals, plants do not have germ cells designated in early development. Instead, germ cells can arise from somatic cells in the adult, such as the floral meristem of flowering plants.

Embryonic stem cell Pluripotent stem cell of the inner cell mass of the blastocyst

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent stem cells derived from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, an early-stage pre-implantation embryo. Human embryos reach the blastocyst stage 4–5 days post fertilization, at which time they consist of 50–150 cells. Isolating the embryoblast, or inner cell mass (ICM) results in destruction of the blastocyst, a process which raises ethical issues, including whether or not embryos at the pre-implantation stage have the same moral considerations as embryos in the post-implantation stage of development.

Embryoid body Three-dimensional aggregate of pluripotent stem cells

Embryoid bodies (EBs) are three-dimensional aggregates of pluripotent stem cells.

Oct-4 Mammalian protein found in Homo sapiens

Oct-4, also known as POU5F1, is a protein that in humans is encoded by the POU5F1 gene. Oct-4 is a homeodomain transcription factor of the POU family. It is critically involved in the self-renewal of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells. As such, it is frequently used as a marker for undifferentiated cells. Oct-4 expression must be closely regulated; too much or too little will cause differentiation of the cells.

Gametogonium are stem cells for gametes located within the gonads. They originate from primordial germ cells, which have migrated to the gonads. Male gametogonia which are located within the testes during development and adulthood are called spermatogonium. Female gametogonia, known as oogonium, are found within the ovaries of the developing foetus and were thought to be depleted at or after birth. Spermatogonia and oogonia are classified as sexually differentiated germ cells.

Homeobox protein NANOG Transcriptional factor that helps embryonic stem cells (ESCs) maintain pluripotency by suppressing cell determination factors

Homeobox protein NANOG is a transcriptional factor that helps embryonic stem cells (ESCs) maintain pluripotency by suppressing cell determination factors. Several types of cancer are associated with NANOG.

Stem-cell line Culture of stem cells that can be propagated indefinitely

A stem cell line is a group of stem cells that is cultured in vitro and can be propagated indefinitely. Stem cell lines are derived from either animal or human tissues and come from one of three sources: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, or induced stem cells. They are commonly used in research and regenerative medicine.

In biology, reprogramming refers to erasure and remodeling of epigenetic marks, such as DNA methylation, during mammalian development or in cell culture. Such control is also often associated with alternative covalent modifications of histones.

Induced pluripotent stem cell Pluripotent stem cell generated directly from a somatic cell

Induced pluripotent stem cells are a type of pluripotent stem cell that can be generated directly from a somatic cell. The iPSC technology was pioneered by Shinya Yamanaka’s lab in Kyoto, Japan, who showed in 2006 that the introduction of four specific genes, collectively known as Yamanaka factors, encoding transcription factors could convert somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells. He was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize along with Sir John Gurdon "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent."

Shinya Yamanaka Japanese stem cell researcher

Shinya Yamanaka is a Japanese stem cell researcher, winner of the Nobel Prize. He serves as the director of Center for iPS Cell Research and Application and a professor at the Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences at Kyoto University; as a senior investigator at the UCSF-affiliated Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, California; and as a professor of anatomy at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Yamanaka is also a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Embryomics is the identification, characterization and study of the diverse cell types which arise during embryogenesis, especially as this relates to the location and developmental history of cells in the embryo. Cell type may be determined according to several criteria: location in the developing embryo, gene expression as indicated by protein and nucleic acid markers and surface antigens, and also position on the embryogenic tree.

Induced stem cells (iSC) are stem cells derived from somatic, reproductive, pluripotent or other cell types by deliberate epigenetic reprogramming. They are classified as either totipotent (iTC), pluripotent (iPSC) or progenitor or unipotent – (iUSC) according to their developmental potential and degree of dedifferentiation. Progenitors are obtained by so-called direct reprogramming or directed differentiation and are also called induced somatic stem cells.

A Muse cell is an endogenous non-cancerous pluripotent stem cell. They reside in the connective tissue of nearly every organ including the umbilical cord, bone marrow and peripheral blood. They are collectable from commercially obtainable mesenchymal cells such as human fibroblasts, bone marrow-mesenchymal stem cells and adipose-derived stem cells. Muse cells are able to generate cells representative of all three germ layers from a single cell both spontaneously and under cytokine induction. Expression of pluripotency genes and triploblastic differentiation are self-renewable over generations. Muse cells do not undergo teratoma formation when transplanted into a host environment in vivo. This can be explained in part by their intrinsically low telomerase activity, eradicating the risk of tumorigenesis through unbridled cell proliferation. They were discovered in 2010 by Mari Dezawa and her research group. Clinical trials for acute myocardial infarction, stroke, epidermolysis bullosa, spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) related to novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infection, are conducted by Life Science Institute, Inc., a group company of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings company. Physician-led clinical trial for neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy was also started. The summary results of a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial in patients with stroke was announced.

Human engineered cardiac tissues (hECTs) are derived by experimental manipulation of pluripotent stem cells, such as human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and, more recently, human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) to differentiate into human cardiomyocytes. Interest in these bioengineered cardiac tissues has risen due to their potential use in cardiovascular research and clinical therapies. These tissues provide a unique in vitro model to study cardiac physiology with a species-specific advantage over cultured animal cells in experimental studies. hECTs also have therapeutic potential for in vivo regeneration of heart muscle. hECTs provide a valuable resource to reproduce the normal development of human heart tissue, understand the development of human cardiovascular disease (CVD), and may lead to engineered tissue-based therapies for CVD patients.

Directed differentiation is a bioengineering methodology at the interface of stem cell biology, developmental biology and tissue engineering. It is essentially harnessing the potential of stem cells by constraining their differentiation in vitro toward a specific cell type or tissue of interest. Stem cells are by definition pluripotent, able to differentiate into several cell types such as neurons, cardiomyocytes, hepatocytes, etc. Efficient directed differentiation requires a detailed understanding of the lineage and cell fate decision, often provided by developmental biology.

After the blastocyst stage, once an embryo implanted in endometrium, the inner cell mass (ICM) of a fertilized embryo segregates into two layers: hypoblast and epiblast. The epiblast cells are the functional progenitors of soma and germ cells which later differentiate into three layers: definitive endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm. Stem cells derived from epiblast are pluripotent. These cells are called epiblast-derived stem cells (EpiSC) and have several different cellular and molecular characteristics with Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC). Pluripotency in EpiSC is essentially different from that of embryonic stem cells. The pluripotency of EpiSC is primed pluripotency: primed to differentiate into specific cell lineages. Naïve pluripotent stem cells and primed pluripotent stem cells not only sustain the ability to self-renew but also maintain the capacity to differentiate. Since the cell status is primed to differentiate in EpiSC, however, one copy of the X chromosome in XX cells in EpiSC is silenced (XaXi). EpiSC is unable to colonize and is not available to be used to produce chimeras. Conversely, XX cells in ESC are both active and can produce chimera when inserted into a blastocyst. Both ESC and EpiSC induce teratoma when injected in the test animals which proves pluripotency. EpiSC display several distinctive characteristics distinct from ESC. The cellular status of human ESC (hESC) is similar to primed state mouse stem cells rather than Naïve state.


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