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Abstract

Germ cells belong to a unique class of stem cells that gives rise to eggs and sperm, and ultimately to an entire organism after gamete fusion. In many organisms, germ cells contain electron-dense structures that are also known as nuage or germ granules. Although germ granules were discovered more than 100 years ago, their composition, structure, assembly, and function are not fully understood. Germ granules contain non-coding RNAs, mRNAs, and proteins required for germline development. Here we review recent studies that highlight the importance of several protein families in germ granule assembly and function, including germ granule inducers, which initiate the granule formation, and downstream components, such as RNA helicases and Tudor domain–Piwi protein–piRNA complexes. Assembly of these components into one granule is likely to result in a highly efficient molecular machine that ensures translational control and protects germline DNA from mutations caused by mobile genetic elements. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that different somatic cells, including stem cells and neurons, produce germ granule components that play a crucial role in stem cell maintenance and memory formation, indicating a much more diverse functional repertoire for these organelles than previously thought. Mol. Reprod. Dev. 80:610–623, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.