In a report published in CELL this week, scientists from the University of Edinburgh identify a new protein central to the unique properties of embryonic stem cells. The report reveals that the protein Nanog, named after the mythological Celtic land of the ever young Tir nan Og, is required for the special ability of stem cells to multiply without limit while remaining able to make many different types of cell.
Embryonic stem cells are fundamental to the normal development of all tissues and organs in the body. They are unique because they can divide to produce identical copies of themselves and, under certain conditions, can differentiate into other types of cell in the body. A central goal in stem cell research is to understand how this choice between self-renewal and differentiation is determined so that one day stem cells may be used to generate new tissues for damaged or diseased organs. Until now, very little was known about the molecular mechanisms that determine stem cell behaviour. This new finding establishes a fundamental role for Nanog in controlling embryonic stem cell identity.
The research group at the Institute for Stem Cell Research, University of Edinburgh, have shown that the Nanog gene, which is only expressed in pluripotent cells, plays an essential function in maintaining stem cells. Dr Ian Chambers who isolated the Nanog gene said: “Nanog seems to be a master gene that makes embryonic stem cells grow in the laboratory. In effect this makes stem cells immortal. Being Scottish, I therefore chose the name after the Tir nan Og legend.”
The Edinburgh paper is published along side a study from Dr Shinya Yamanaka from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. The two groups realised they had discovered the same gene last year and have since collaborated to bring this work to completion.
These results are significant because Nanog is likely to control other genes linked to both self-renewal and pluripotency. Understanding how Nanog works may ultimately explain the unique properties of embryonic stem cells. It is hoped that this will lead to reliable identification and growth of stem cells in the laboratory. Professor Austin Smith leading the Edinburgh research team, said: “This discovery is very exciting. If Nanog has the same effect in humans as we have found in mice, this will be a key step in the developing embryonic stem cells for medical treatments.”
Professor Smith added: “I am very proud that this work has been carried out at the Institute for Stem Cell Research, It shows yet again that Edinburgh is a world leader in stem cell research.”
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