Stem cells are defined by their ability to self-renew and to differentiate into one or more mature lineages, and they reside within natural niches in many types of adult and embryonic tissues that present them with complex signals to regulate these two hallmark properties. The diverse nature of these in vivo microenvironments raises important questions about the microenvironmental cues regulating stem cell plasticity, and the stem cell field has built a strong foundation of knowledge on the biochemical identities and regulatory effects of the soluble, cellular, and extracellular matrix factors surrounding stem cells through the isolation and culture of stem cells in vitro within microenvironments that, in effect, emulate the properties of the natural niche. Recent work, however, has expanded the field's perspective to include biophysical and dynamic characteristics of the microenvironment. These include biomechanical characteristics such as elastic modulus, shear force, and cyclic strain; architectural properties such as geometry, topography, and dimensionality; and dynamic structures and ligand profiles. We will review how these microenvironmental characteristics have been shown to regulate stem cell fate and discuss future research directions that may help expand our current understanding of stem cell biology and aid its application to regenerative medicine. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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