Genetic Cross-Talk Key to Cell Balance

Stowers researchers examined the relationship between two regulator genes—Nanog and Hox. Nanog regulates a cell state called pluripotency, where a cell has the ability to self-renew and the potential to change into any of a number of cell types. Hox sparks cells to differentiate, or become a more specialized cell type such as a heart, brain, or skin cell. In adult organisms, striking a balance between these two states is important to keep many tissues in equilibrium. The blood supply, for example, has cells that are differentiating, dying, or being repaired, and a reserve population of blood-producing adult stem cells is needed to help replace them.

The study suggests that balance between pluripotency and differentiation hinges in part on regulatory communication involving inhibition between Nanog and Hox genes—something that compares to parents giving their children instructions. “Parents may say, ‘You need to get good grades; you need to learn this,’ for positive guidance but they are likely to reinforce the importance of that advice and minimize negative outcomes by saying, ‘You don’t want to do this,’” says Robb Krumlauf, PhD, an investigator and the scientific director at the Stowers Institute and senior author of the study.

The work provides important insight into the basic processes of tissue formation, and holds relevance for the field of regenerative medicine and the development of therapeutic approaches for certain cancers.

This study was published online June 5, 2017, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.