Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Community
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Researchers Change Cell Types by Flipping a Single Switch

Published: Friday, December 06, 2013
Last Updated: Friday, December 06, 2013
Bookmark and Share
New findings have identified a method for changing one cell type into another in a process called forced transdifferentiation.

With C. elegans as the animal model, lead author Misty Riddle, a doctoral student in the Rothman Lab, used transcription factor ELT-7 to change the roundworm’s pharynx cells into intestine cells in a single-step process. Every cell has the genetic potential to become any kind of cell. However, the cell’s history and the signals it receives changes the transcription factors it contains and thus determines what kind of cell it will become. A transcription factor is a protein that causes genes to turn on.

“This discovery is quite surprising because it was previously thought that only early embryonic cells could be coaxed into changing their identity this readily,” Riddle said. “The committed cells that we switched are completely remodeled and reprogrammed in every way that we tested.”

Switching one cell type into another to replace lost or damaged tissue is a major focus of regenerative medicine. The stumbling block is that cells are very resistant to changing their identity once they’ve committed to a specific kind.

“Our discovery means it may become possible to create a tissue or organ of one type directly out of one of another type,” says Joel Rothman, professor in UCSB’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, who heads the lab.

Riddle and her colleagues challenged all C. elegans cells to make the switch to intestine, but only the pharynx cells were able to do so. “We asked skin cells, muscles, neurons to change but found that only the cells in the pharynx were able to transform,” Riddle explained. “So this brings up some big questions. Why aren’t other cells changing their identities? What is special about the cells in the pharynx that allow them to change their identity into intestine?

“Since C. elegans is such an incredible model system we can really tackle these questions,” she continued. “By knocking down certain genes and manipulating the animal, we can begin to better understand the conditions under which skin cells and muscles cells might change their identities. That will help us figure out what is special about the cells in the pharynx.”

Previous studies in the Rothman lab revealed the cascade of transcription factors required for the proper development of the C. elegans intestine. Used in the later stage of intestine development, ELT-7 continues to be expressed for the life of the animal and has important functions not only in gut development but also in gut function.

This study is revolutionary in that researchers have clearly demonstrated that cells are not limited to their original identities. “Think of them as different rooms in a house,” Riddle said.

“Like cells, different rooms in your house have different structures and functions. Changing the function of a room is likely to be easier if the structures are similar, say, turning a bedroom into a living room or vice versa. But changing the bathroom into a living room presents a bigger challenge,” Riddle explained. “Just as some rooms in a house are more easily converted to others, some cell types may be more easily coaxed into changing their identity to another specific type. This doesn’t seem to depend on the relatedness of the cells in terms of when they were born or how closely related they are in their lineage.”

Maybe the heart cell can become a brain cell after all.

As demonstrated by another important finding in the UCSB study, the cells remodeled themselves in a continuous process; there were stages in the remodeling process during which the identity of the cell was mixed. “Going back to the home remodeling example,” Riddle said, “the couch and television were added to the bedroom before the bed and dresser were removed.”

“The key importance of our finding is that we have observed cells undergoing a process of morphing in which one specialized cell type is converted into another of an entirely different type,” Rothman said. “This means that it may be possible to turn any cell into any other cell in a direct conversion. In terms of our understanding of biological constraints over cell identity, we’ve shown a barrier that we believed absolutely prevents cells from switching their identity does not exist. It may one day be possible to switch an entire organ from one kind to another.”

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,600+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 3,800+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

New Autism Genes Are Revealed in Largest-Ever Study
Work draws more detailed picture of genetic risk, sheds light on sex differences in diagnosis.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Scientists Create CRISPR/Cas9 Knock-In Mutations in Human T Cells
In a project spearheaded by investigators at UC San Francisco, scientists have devised a new strategy to precisely modify human T cells using the genome-editing system known as CRISPR/Cas9.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Simple Technology Makes CRISPR Gene Editing Cheaper
University of California, Berkeley, researchers have discovered a much cheaper and easier way to target a hot new gene editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, to cut or label DNA.
Friday, July 24, 2015
Engineers Crack DNA Code of Autoimmune Disorders
Researchers have identified an unexpectedly general set of rules that determine which molecules can cause the immune system to become vulnerable to the autoimmune disorders lupus and psoriasis.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Genetic Markers for Detecting and Treating Ovarian Cancer
Custom bioinformatics algorithm identifies human mRNAs that distinguish ovarian cancer cells from normal cells and provide new therapeutic targets
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Industry-Sponsored Academic Inventions Spur Increased Innovation
Analysis questions assumption that corporate support skews science toward inventions that are less useful than those funded by the government or non-profit organizations.
Monday, March 24, 2014
Scientists Pinpoint Cell Type and Brain Region Affected by Gene Mutations in Autism
UCSF-led study zeroes in on when and where disrupted genes exert effects.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Digging Deeper Into Cancer
What a pathologist looks for in a Pap test sample, but hopes not to find, are oddly shaped cells with abnormally large nuclei. The same is true for prostate and lung cancer biopsies.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Nanotech Method Show Promise Against Pancreatic Cancer
Researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed a new technique for fighting deadly and hard-to-treat pancreatic cancer.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Researchers Un-Junking Junk DNA
A study shines a new light on molecular tools our cells use to govern regulated gene expression.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Fast-Mutating DNA Sequences Shape Early Development
What does it mean to be human? According to scientists the key lies, ultimately, in the billions of lines of genetic code that comprise the human genome.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Did Inefficient Cellular Machinery Evolve to Fight Viruses and Jumping Genes?
UCSF scientist poses new theory on origins of eukaryotic gene expression.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Powerful Anti-Cancer Compound Safely Delivered
Researchers have discovered a way to effectively deliver staurosporine (STS).
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
New Insights into How Proteins Regulate Genes
Researchers have developed a new way to parse and understand how special proteins called "master regulators" read the genome, and consequently turn genes on and off.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Cell Growth Discovery Has Implications for Targeting Cancer
The way cells divide to form new cells is controlled in previously unsuspected ways.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Scientific News
Chromosomal Chaos
Penn study forms basis for future precision medicine approaches for Sezary syndrome
Shaking Up the Foundations of Epigenetics
Researchers at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the University of Barcelona (UB) published a study that challenges some of the current beliefs about epigenetics.
Genetic Defences of Bacteria Don’t Aid Antibiotic Resistance
Genetic responses to the stresses caused by antibiotics don’t help bacteria to evolve a resistance to the medications, according to a new study by Oxford University researchers.
Tolerant Immune System Increases Cancer Risk
Researchers have found that individuals with high immunoCRIT ratios may have an increased risk of developing certain cancers.
Developing a Gel that Mimics Human Breast for Cancer Research
Scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Nottingham have been funded to develop a gel that will match many of the biological structures of human breast tissue, to advance cancer research and reduce animal testing.
Lung Repair and Regeneration Gene Discovered
New role for hedgehog gene offers better understanding of lung disease.
3 Ways Viruses Have Changed Science for the Better
Viruses are really good at what they do, and we’ve been able to harness their skills to learn about – and potentially improve – human health in several ways.
Mixed Up Cell Transportation Key Piece of ALS and Dementia Puzzle
Researchers from the University of Toronto are one step closer to solving this incredibly complex puzzle, offering hope for treatment.
New Gene Therapy for Vision Loss From a Mitochondrial Disease
NIH-funded study shows success in targeting mitochondrial DNA in mice.
Five New Genetic Variants Linked to Brain Cancer Identified
The biggest ever study of DNA from people with glioma – the most common form of brain cancer – has discovered five new genetic variants associated with the disease.
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,600+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,800+ scientific videos