Stem cells in a developing embryo have a unique ability to distinguish into different types of tissues aided by the gene HMGA1. Source: Ryddragyn via commons.wikimedia.org
Similar to how we have the liberty to opt for our preferred careers, stem cells in developing embryos also choose their own specialized fate; whether they wish to become a neuron, a white blood cell or another tissue in an organism.
Researchers studied the Neural Crest, a population of stem cells that are found in an organism’s head-to-tail axis. These cells have a rather unique ability to distinguish into different types of tissues such as the heart muscle or facial skeleton. Using this information, the researchers delved deeper and discovered how a gene called HMGA1 (High Mobility Group A1) helps the formation of neural crest cells in an early embryo. Every cell in a developing embryo contains a copy of the organism’s entire genome; therefore, depending on what the cell chooses, it must follow specific processes to maintain the function of the developing organism. This is where the protein HMGA1 plays its role and helps the cell initiate the process.
The researchers found that HMGA1 has two diverse roles; one is controlling the gene PAX7 and the other is regulating a gene called WNT1. The gene PAX7 is essential as it is necessary for the formation of neural crest cells and without this gene, the cells turn into central nervous system cells instead. As for the gene WNT1, it aids the neural cells to separate correctly from the neural tube to begin their migration elsewhere in the embryo. The only way the neural cells can migrate to other parts of the embryo is by passing through the neural tube which is why the gene WNT1 plays a vital role in an embryo’s development.
This research is consequential since it shows that HMGA1 is key for healthy embryonic development. As the embryo is a self-assembling system, small mutations in these genes at an early stage could cause birth defects or issues for adults as they grow. This research is truly noteworthy in the medical field as this could ensure the better health of a mother and the developing embryo in early stages.
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