Cellular Differentiation - Mechanisms


Each specialized cell type in an organism expresses a subset of all the genes that constitute the genome of that species. Each cell type is defined by its particular pattern of regulated gene expression. Cell differentiation is thus a transition of a cell from one cell type to another and it involves a switch from one pattern of gene expression to another. Cellular differentiation during development can be understood as the result of a gene regulatory network. A regulatory gene and its cis-regulatory modules are nodes in a gene regulatory network; they receive input and create output elsewhere in the network. The systems biology approach to developmental biology emphasizes the importance of investigating how developmental mechanisms interact to produce predictable patterns (morphogenesis). (However, an alternative view has been proposed recently. Based on stochastic gene expression, cellular differentiation is the result of a Darwinian selective process occurring among cells. In this frame, protein and gene networks are the result of cellular processes and not their cause. See: Cellular Darwinism)

A few evolutionarily conserved types of molecular processes are often involved in the cellular mechanisms that control these switches. The major types of molecular processes that control cellular differentiation involve cell signaling. Many of the signal molecules that convey information from cell to cell during the control of cellular differentiation are called growth factors. Although the details of specific signal transduction pathways vary, these pathways often share the following general steps. A ligand produced by one cell binds to a receptor in the extracellular region of another cell, inducing a conformational change in the receptor. The shape of the cytoplasmic domain of the receptor changes, and the receptor acquires enzymatic activity. The receptor then catalyzes reactions that phosphorylate other proteins, activating them. A cascade of phosphorylation reactions eventually activates a dormant transcription factor or cytoskeletal protein, thus contributing to the differentiation process in the target cell. Cells and tissues can vary in competence, their ability to respond to external signals.

Induction refers to cascades of signaling events, during which a cell or tissue signals to another cell or tissue to influence its developmental fate. Yamamoto and Jeffery investigated the role of the lens in eye formation in cave- and surface-dwelling fish, a striking example of induction. Through reciprocal transplants, Yamamoto and Jeffery found that the lens vesicle of surface fish can induce other parts of the eye to develop in cave- and surface-dwelling fish, while the lens vesicle of the cave-dwelling fish cannot.

Other important mechanisms fall under the category of asymmetric cell divisions, divisions that give rise to daughter cells with distinct developmental fates. Asymmetric cell divisions can occur because of asymmetrically expressed maternal cytoplasmic determinants or because of signaling. In the former mechanism, distinct daughter cells are created during cytokinesis because of an uneven distribution of regulatory molecules in the parent cell; the distinct cytoplasm that each daughter cell inherits results in a distinct pattern of differentiation for each daughter cell. A well-studied example of pattern formation by asymmetric divisions is body axis patterning in Drosophila. RNA molecules are an important type of intracellular differentiation control signal. The molecular and genetic basis of asymmetric cell divisions has also been studied in green algae of the genus Volvox, a model system for studying how unicellular organisms can evolve into multicellular organisms. In Volvox carteri, the 16 cells in the anterior hemisphere of a 32-cell embryo divide asymmetrically, each producing one large and one small daughter cell. The size of the cell at the end of all cell divisions determines whether it becomes a specialized germ or somatic cell.

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