UCSB researchers in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology have recently discovered a mechanism by which embryonic cells decide to become specific cell types in adult humans.

The discovery comes from the lab of Joel Rothman and was carried out by graduate student Nareg Djabrayan along with Erica Sommermann and Nathaniel Dudley. The work, published in the journal Genes and Development, was aimed at determining how the body tells cells to become specific cell types.

“The goal was to learn the biological mechanisms that cause cells to commit to a particular identity, i.e., that lock them into becoming a particular type of cell and prevent them from later turning into a different type of cell,” Rothman said.

Normally, cells become one specific cell type and are not capable of becoming another cell type once a specific type is chosen. For example, a cell that becomes a cardiac cell cannot later decide to be a neuron. However, the finding from the Rothman lab takes us one step closer to understanding the complex process of cellular determination. With additional research, Rothman and his colleagues hope to one day be able to unlock the ability to change cells from one type to another.

“If this can be achieved effectively, we will have the potential to turn any kind of cell into any other kind of cell,” Rothman said. “This constitutes much of the basis of regenerative medicine, whose ultimate goal is to create replacement parts for any component or organ in our bodies. Hence, one could hope to grow cells of one type in a lab and ‘manufacture’ from those cells other types of cells that could be used to create the desired replacement organs or tissues.”

Although currently we are far from this achievement, the mechanisms that govern cell differentiation are complex and intricate. However, Rothman’s work has brought us just a little closer. In the future, he has high hopes that more studies will yield insight to this process.

“We are performing additional studies to determine the genetic regulatory events that cause cells to become progressively more restricted in their choice of fates during development,” Rothman said. “What are the genes that lock cells down to a particular job, and how can we unlock cells by altering those genes? Our study has addressed one element of that broader question and we will continue to expand our investigations into this important question.”

Nevertheless, scientific research requires a great deal of hard work and financial support. With the upcoming election in mind, Rothman hopes that federal funding continues to support such crucial research.

“The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are the major engines driving fundamental scientific discovery in this country,” Rothman said. “It is critically important that the U.S. continues to support and encourage these agencies to direct substantial resources toward basic scientific discoveries. While support for targeted research that is directed towards applied, practical outcomes is crucially important to new developments in health care, it is also vitally important to ensure continued support for high-quality basic science research. I hope that the U.S. will hold to its tradition of leadership in the world scientific stage in this regard, regardless of who is in control.”