New research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sheds light on pluripotency-the ability of embryonic stem cells to renew themselves indefinitely and to differentiate into all types of mature cells. Solving this problem, which is a major challenge in modern biology, could expedite the use of embryonic stem cells in cell therapy and regenerative medicine. If scientists can replicate the mechanisms that make pluripotency possible, they could create cells in the laboratory which could be implanted in humans to cure diseases characterized by cell death, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.
To shed light on these processes, researchers in the lab of Dr. Eran Meshorer, in the Department of Genetics at the Hebrew University's Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, are combining molecular, microscopic and genomic approaches. Meshorer's team is focusing on epigenetic pathways-which cause biological changes without a corresponding change in the DNA sequence-that are specific to embryonic stem cells.
The molecular basis for epigenetic mechanisms is chromatin, which is comprised of a cell's DNA and structural and regulatory proteins. In groundbreaking research performed by Shai Melcer, a PhD student in the Meshorer lab, the mechanisms which support an "open" chromatin conformation in embryonic stem cells were examined. The researchers found that chromatin is less condensed in embryonic stem cells, allowing them the flexibility or "functional plasticity" to turn into any kind of cell.
A distinct pattern of chemical modifications of chromatin structural proteins (referred to as the acetylation and methylation of histones) enables a looser chromatin configuration in embryonic stem cells. During the early stages of differentiation, this pattern changes to facilitate chromatin compaction.