Cells don't change type once they have become specialized a heart cell, for example, won't suddenly become a brain cell. However, there are a few exceptions. New findings by researchers at UC Santa Barbara have identified a method for changing one cell type into another in a process called forced transdifferentiation. Their work appears today in the journal Development.
With C. elegans as the animal model, lead author Misty Riddle, a Ph.D. 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."