Stem Cells and Differentiation

A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell, or in other words, a cell that has not undergone differentiation. The stem cell changes, becoming a type of cell that carries out a specific function. We call these cells specialised cells.

When an unspecialised cell becomes a specialised cell, the process is called differentiation.

All multicellular organisms begin life as single cells. A fertilised egg (zygote) divides by mitosis, forming identical daughter cells. Initially, the fertilised egg cell forms a ball of cells called an embryo. These cells will divide repeatedly until they eventually form an individual organism, which is made up of billions of differentiated (specialised) cells.

A diagram showing stem cells and its process of differentiation, transforming into specialised cells

As stem cells differentiate into specialised cells, they commit to a specific pathway of development. The cells become committed to becoming a specific type of cell e.g. a red blood cell or a guard cell.

Each type of differentiated cell has different subcellular structures, which help the cell carry out different functions.

Types of Stem Cells

There are three main types of stem cells that you need to know about:

  • Embryonic stem cells
  • Adult stem cells
  • Meristem cells

Embryonic stem cells

Any of the cells in an early-stage embryo are capable of differentiating into any type of body cell. These cells are called embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells

Stem cells are mostly found in growing embryos but they can also be found in adults. For example, in the:

  • brain
  • bone marrow
  • blood vessels
  • skin
  • teeth

Adult stem cells can only differentiate into related cells. For example, stem cells in the bone marrow can become blood or immune system cells, while those in the skin form cells of the skin layers.

Meristem cells

Plants contain regions of stem cells called meristems, in the root tips and shoot tips of the plant. These are areas where cells are rapidly dividing.

Functions of Stem Cells

Stem cells replace cells in the particular organ of the body in which they are found. This happens when new cells are required in tissues that have been destroyed by accidents or disease.

The stem cells in embryos differentiate to give us ALL of the specialised cells found in the adult body. Meristem tissue (found in the shoot tips and root tips of plants) can become specialised cells required for a plant to grow.

Stem cells divide to replenish dying cells and repair damaged tissues. However, in adults, the types of specialised cells they can differentiate into are limited.