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Keywords:

  • Pluripotency;
  • Differentiation;
  • Tissue regeneration;
  • Technology;
  • Stem cell-microenvironment interactions;
  • Experimental models;
  • Embryonic stem cells

Abstract

Developmental gradients of morphogens and the formation of boundaries guide the choices between self-renewal and differentiation in stem cells. Still, surprisingly little is known about gene expression signatures of differentiating stem cells at the boundaries between regions. We thus combined inducible gene expression with a microfluidic technology to pattern gene expression in murine embryonic stem cells. Regional depletion of the Nanog transcriptional regulator was achieved through the exposure of cells to microfluidic gradients of morphogens. In this way, we established pluripotency-differentiation boundaries between Nanog expressing cells (pluripotency zone) and Nanog suppressed cells (early differentiation zone) within the same cell population, with a gradient of Nanog expression across the individual cell colonies, to serve as a mimic of the developmental process. Using this system, we identified strong interactions between Nanog and its target genes by constructing a network with Nanog as the root and the measured levels of gene expression in each region. Gene expression patterns at the pluripotency-differentiation boundaries recreated in vitro were similar to those in the developing blastocyst. This approach to the study of cellular commitment at the boundaries between gene expression domains, a phenomenon critical for understanding of early development, has potential to benefit fundamental research of stem cells and their application in regenerative medicine. Stem Cells 2013;31:1806-1815