Cell differentiation is a process in which a generic cell develops into a specific type of cell in response to triggers from the body or the cell itself. This is the process which allows a single celled zygote to develop into a multicellular adult organism that can contain hundreds of different types of cells. In addition to being critical to embryonic development, cell differentiation also plays a role in the function of many organisms, particularly complex organisms, throughout their lives.
When a single cell has the capability of developing into any kind of cell, it is known as totipotent. In mammals, the zygote and the embryo during early stages of development are totipotent. Cells that can differentiate into several different cell types, but not all, are considered to be pluripotent. In both cases, the nucleus is the same, containing all of the genetic information needed to encode the entire organism, but only certain genes are activated.
Differentiation dramatically changes a cell's size, shape, membrane potential, metabolic activity, and responsiveness to signals. These changes are largely due to highly controlled modifications in gene expression. With a few exceptions, cellular differentiation almost never involves a change in the DNA sequence itself. Thus, different cells can have very different physical characteristics despite having the same genome.
When an embryo develops, cell differentiation is critical, because it allows the developing organism to create all of the numerous different cell types it will need. Once mature, the organism will have germ cells, somatic cells, and adult stem cells.
Cell differentiation has become a critical area of research, both in the context of adult and embryonic stem cells as well as a general and critical cellular process.
With industry-leading cellular analysis solutions, including technologies for basic and high-content imaging, laser-scanning cytometry, and label-free analysis, Molecular Devices is well positioned to support the success of your bioanalytical, drug development, and life science research into cell differentiation. Please select among the links below to learn more.