Pluripotent cells (stem cells) and their determination and differentiation in early vertebrate embryogenesis


  • †This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr Hildegard Tiedemann.


Mammalian embryonic stem cells can be obtained from the inner cell mass of blastocysts or from primordial germ cells. These stem cells are pluripotent and can develop into all three germ cell layers of the embryo. Somatic mammalian stem cells, derived from adult or fetal tissues, are more restricted in their developmental potency. Amphibian ectodermal and endodermal cells lose their pluripotency at the early gastrula stage. The dorsal mesoderm of the marginal zone is determined before the mid-blastula transition by factors located after cortical rotation in the marginal zone, without induction by the endoderm. Secreted maternal factors (BMP, FGF and activins), maternal receptors and maternal nuclear factors (β-catenin, Smad and Fast proteins), which form multiprotein transcriptional complexes, act together to initiate pattern formation. Following mid-blastula transition in Xenopus laevis (Daudin) embryos, secreted nodal-related (Xnr) factors become important for endoderm and mesoderm differentiation to maintain and enhance mesoderm induction. Endoderm can be induced by high concentrations of activin (vegetalizing factor) or nodal-related factors, especially Xnr5 and Xnr6, which depend on Wnt/β-catenin signaling and on VegT, a vegetal maternal transcription factor. Together, these and other factors regulate the equilibrium between endoderm and mesoderm development. Many genes are activated and/or repressed by more than one signaling pathway and by regulatory loops to refine the tuning of gene expression. The nodal related factors, BMP, activins and Vg1 belong to the TGF-β superfamily. The homeogenetic neural induction by the neural plate probably reinforces neural induction and differentiation. Medical and ethical problems of future stem cell therapy are briefly discussed.