Multicoloured stem cells show how they work

1 October 2010

Researchers at the Academy's Hubrecht Institute have succeeded in giving individual stem cells their own particular colour. All the progeny of such a stem cell are then the same colour. The results and the photos appeared in the journal Cell on 1 October.

In Cell, Prof. Hans Clevers (Hubrecht Institute) and his colleagues describe how individual stem cells and also their progeny can be given a particular colour. Thanks to the luminous cells, it is very easy to see how intestinal tissue develops from stem cells. A single red, yellow, blue, or green stem cell develops into a microscopic bulge in the intestine of the same colour (see the photos at the end of this report).

"You can actually see stem cells at work," says Prof. Clevers. "It's unique. We can incorporate four colours into the DNA of the stem cells, and they pass on the colours to their progeny. This is the first time that individual luminous stem cells have been made visible in this way."

In the Cell article, Clevers and his colleagues also describe how stem cells in the intestine are preserved. Researchers have always assumed that stem cells multiply by an unusual kind of division which creates one new stem cell and one new cell of another type. Clevers has shown that stem cells in fact divide very frequently, producing two new stem cells, but that a random process means that half of the new cells lose the properties of stem cells. It is this mechanism that allows the intestine to retain precisely enough stem cells over the course of time. The scientific basis for this was developed by Ben Simons (Cambridge University), one of the co authors of the Cell article.

The researchers carried out their experiments using stem cells taken from mice, but the results are also applicable to humans because the proteins and cells involved are fully comparable. The results help understand stomach cancer and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), and are a step on the way towards "regenerative medicine". It may in future become possible to replace damaged tissue with tissue cultivated in the laboratory on the basis of stem cells.

Prof. Clevers and has colleagues already discovered that Lgr5 stem cells can develop into intestinal tissue and that they are involved in the formation of intestinal tumours. They reported on these findings in three articles in Nature, one in Science, and one in Cell.
The Hubrecht Institute is an Academy institute and is affiliated to Utrecht University Medical Centre. (UMC).

Note for editors

For more information, please contact the secretarial department for Internal and External Communication at Utrecht University Medical Centre. (UMC) on telephone +31 (0)88 7557 483 or E-mail
Outside office hours: +31 (0)88 7555 555.

Lengtedoorsnede van de darmwand

Lengtedoorsnede van de darmwand. Stamcellen zitten in de bodem van crypten, onderin in de figuur. De nakomeling-cellen stromen naar boven, naar de toppen van de darmvlokken. Iedere stamcel maakt nakomelingen van een unieke kleur, waardoor de gekleurde linten ontstaan. Foto: Hugo Snippert, Hubrecht Instituut.

Dwarsdoorsnede door een groot aantal darmcrypten

Dwarsdoorsnede door een groot aantal darmcrypten, die als gekleurde 'schijven' verschijnen. Iedere crypt 'schijf' wordt door één stamcel met een unieke kleur in stand gehouden. Foto: Hugo Snippert, Hubrecht Instituut.