The transcriptome of embryonic stem cells
Embryonic stem cells (ESCs), derived from the blastocyst stage of early mammalian embryos, are distinguished by their ability to differentiate into any embryonic cell type and by their ability to self-renew. It is these traits that makes them valuable in the scientific and medical fields. ESCs have a normal karyotype, maintain high telomerase activity, and exhibit remarkable long-term proliferative potential.
Embryonic stem cells of the inner cell mass are pluripotent, meaning they are able to differentiate to generate primitive ectoderm, which ultimately differentiates during gastrulation into all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm. These germ layers generate each of the more than 220 cell types in the adult human body. When provided with the appropriate signals, ESCs initially form precursor cells that in subsequently differentiate into the desired cell types. Pluripotency distinguishes embryonic stem cells from adult stem cells, which are multipotent and can only produce a limited number of cell types.
Under defined conditions, embryonic stem cells are capable of self-renewing indefinitely in an undifferentiated state. Self-renewal conditions must prevent the cells from clumping and maintain an environment that supports an unspecialized state. Typically this is done in the lab with media containing serum and leukemia inhibitory factor or serum-free media supplements with two inhibitory drugs ("2i"), the MEK inhibitor PD03259010 and GSK-3 inhibitor CHIR99021.
ESCs divide very frequently due to a shortened G1 phase in their cell cycle. Rapid cell division allows the cells to quickly grow in number, but not size, which is important for early embryo development. In ESCs, cyclin A and cyclin E proteins involved in the G1/S transition are always expressed at high levels. Cyclin-dependent kinases such as CDK2 that promote cell cycle progression are overactive, in part due to downregulation of their inhibitors. Retinoblastoma proteins that inhibit the transcription factor E2F until the cell is ready to enter S phase are hyperphosphorylated and inactivated in ESCs, leading to continual expression of proliferation genes. These changes result in accelerated cycles of cell division. Although the shortened G1 phase has been linked to maintenance of pluripotency, ESCs grown in serum-free 2i conditions do express hypo-phosphorylated active Retinoblastoma proteins and have an elongated G1 phase. Despite this difference in the cell cycle when compared to ESCs grown in media containing serum these cells have similar pluripotent characteristics. Pluripotency factors Oct4 and Nanog play a role in transcriptionally regulating the ESC cell cycle.
Due to their plasticity and potentially unlimited capacity for self-renewal, embryonic stem cell therapies have been proposed for regenerative medicine and tissue replacement after injury or disease. Pluripotent stem cells have shown promise in treating a number of varying conditions, including but not limited to: spinal cord injuries, age related macular degeneration, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders (such as Parkinson's disease), AIDS, etc. In addition to their potential in regenerative medicine, embryonic stem cells provide a possible alternative source of tissue/organs which serves as a possible solution to the donor shortage dilemma. There are some ethical controversies surrounding this though (see Ethical debate section below). Aside from these uses, ESCs can also be used for research on early human development, certain genetic disease, and in vitro toxicology testing.