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News Researchers succeed in using forced transdifferentiation to change cell types

Article in 'News' Written by Arul Prakash Published Dec 4, 2013

  1. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara used a process called forced transdifferentiation to successfully change one cell type is into another.

    Their study was successful in converting pharynx cells into intestine cells using transcription factor ELT-7 in a single step process with C. elegans as their model and is published on the journal Development.

    Specialised cells don't change types easily but they do carry the genome that is identical to every other cells. When a cell of a particular cell type is to be created then specific transcription factors needs to expressed and depending the on the transcription factors the cell types might change. Transcription factors are proteins that activate genes.

    “This discovery is quite surprising because it was previously thought that only early embryonic cells could be coaxed into changing their identity this readily,” Riddle, a PhD student said. “The committed cells that we switched are completely remodeled and reprogrammed in every way that we tested.”

    C.-elegans-pharynx.
    Adult cell in C. elegans pharynx
    The study has great potential as the ability to switch cell types could mean repair or replace damaged tissues from diseases or injuries. This had been unsuccessful dream of regenerative medicine for sometime as cells resist cell type changes.

    “Our discovery means it may become possible to create a tissue or organ of one type directly out of one of another type,” says Joel Rothman, professor at UCSB.

    While the team was successful in converting pharynx to intestine cells, they were unable to convert other C, elegans cells to the type they wanted.

    “We asked skin cells, muscles, neurons to change but found that only the cells in the pharynx were able to transform,” Riddle explained. “

    Researchers focussed on finding explaination to these variation in between cell types.

    “Since C. elegans is such an incredible model system we can really tackle these questions,” she continued. “By knocking down certain genes and manipulating the animal, we can begin to better understand the conditions under which skin cells and muscles cells might change their identities. That will help us figure out what is special about the cells in the pharynx.”

    This study is revolutionary in that researchers have clearly demonstrated that cells are not limited to their original identities. “Think of them as different rooms in a house,” Riddle said.

    Using rooms and things in a house as an analogy researchers explained that the remodeling process in which the cells morph into mixed cell types before completely changing cell types. This remodeling process remained independent on relation between cells.

    Riddle explained. “Just as some rooms in a house are more easily converted to others, some cell types may be more easily coaxed into changing their identity to another specific type. This doesn’t seem to depend on the relatedness of the cells in terms of when they were born or how closely related they are in their lineage. The couch and television were added to the bedroom before the bed and dresser were removed.”

    “The key importance of our finding is that we have observed cells undergoing a process of morphing in which one specialized cell type is converted into another of an entirely different type,” Rothman said. “This means that it may be possible to turn any cell into any other cell in a direct conversion. In terms of our understanding of biological constraints over cell identity, we’ve shown a barrier that we believed absolutely prevents cells from switching their identity does not exist. It may one day be possible to switch an entire organ from one kind to another.”

    Further reading: Transdifferentiation and remodeling of post-embryonic C. elegans cells by a single transcription factor.
    Riddle MR, Weintraub A, Nguyen KC, Hall DH, Rothman JH.
    • Arul Prakash

      Article by Arul Prakash

      Editor and founder of BiotechCareer.Org. He is an Industrial Biotechnologists and also a web developer, gooner, blogger, and foodie.

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