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Stem cells in plants and animals behave surprisingly similarly

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A new study from Lund University in Sweden shows that the behavior of stem cells in plants and animals is surprisingly similar. The researchers were able to produce mathematical equations that reveal very small differences in the behavior of the proteins.

The results can hopefully be used in stem cell research involving humans.

“The plant and animal kingdoms were separated through evolution more than 1.6 billion years ago. It is surprising that the interactions between the handful of key genes that control the fate of each stem cell are so similar in both cases,” said Carsten Peterson, Ph.D., professor at the Faculty of Science at Lund University. Dr. Peterson was one of the researchers behind the recent study on differences and similarities between animal and plant stem cells. With a background in theoretical physics, he and his colleagues tackled the stem cells from a different perspective.

By formulating mathematical equations, the researchers performed a detailed study of the proteins that are central to the stem cells in mammals and plants. The proteins are linked to genes that control the stem cells. In particular, the researchers studied how these proteins mutually affect one another through interaction as the cells evolve.

“Although the proteins in mammalian and plant stem cells are very different when studied separately, there are major similarities in the ways in which they interact, that is, how they strengthen or weaken each other,” Dr. Peterson said.

Stem cells are a hot topic in medical contexts, especially when it comes to cancer and autoimmune diseases. A stem cell is capable of evolving into several different types of cells and is thus a sort of mother cell to all of the body’s specialized cell types. In animals, these specialized cells can never return to a stem cell state on their own. In plants, however, they can.

“Specialized cells of plants can return to being stem cells without external manipulation. In the plant world, there is a natural reprogramming process,” said Dr. Peterson.

The mathematical equations show that very small differences are sufficient to explain why plant cells are so flexible while cells of mammals require artificial reprogramming to return to a stem cell state.

“When cells are influenced externally – artificially for animals or naturally for plants – the minor differences in interaction play a greater role, and the differences appear to be of greater significance,” Dr. Peterson said.

He believes that a lot of work remains with regard to the efficiency of reprogramming of animal cells and therefore hopes that insights from the plant world can contribute. The current study, published in  PLoS ONE, provides clues about why it is so much easier to make a cell go back to being a stem cell in plants compared to mammals.

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