• Open Access

Morphological characterization of very small embryonic-like stem cells (VSELs) by ImageStream system analysis


Correspondence to: Mariusz Z. RATAJCZAK M.D., Ph.D.,
or Ewa K.ZUBA-SURMA, Ph.D.,
Stem Cell Institute, James Graham Brown Cancer Center,
University of Louisville, 500 Floyd St., Louisville, KY
40202, USA.
Tel.:+50 2–85 2–34 86
Fax:+50 2–85 2–30 32
E-mail: mzrata01@louisville.edu or ekzuba01@louisville.edu


Recently, our group purified a rare population of primitive Sca1+/Lin/CD45 cells from murine bone marrow by employing multiparameter cell sorting. Based on flow cytometric and gene expression analysis, these cells have been shown to express several markers of embryonic stem cells and were accordingly termed Very Small Embryonic-Like stem cells (VSELs). In order to better characterize VSELs, we focused on their morphological parameters (e.g. diameter, nuclear to cytoplasmic ratio, cytoplasmic area) as well as expression of Oct-4. To examine the morphological features of VSELs, we employed a multi-dimensional approach, including (i) traditional flow cytometry, (ii) a novel approach, which is ImageStream (IS) cytometry and (iii) confocal microscopy. We demonstrate by all of the sensitive and precise methods employed, that VSELs are a population of very small cells, which are significantly smaller than haematopoetic stem cells (HSC) (3.63 ± 0.09 versus 6.54 ±0.17 μm in diameter). They also exhibit higher nuclear to cytoplasmic ratio and lower cytoplasmic area as compared with HSCs and mature granulocytes. Besides confirming the size characteristics, confocal microscopic analysis also confirmed that VSELs express Oct-4, a marker of pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Morphological examination reveals that VSELs are unusually small eukaryotic cells that posses several characteristics of embryonic cells. Thus, FACS-based sorting strategies should consider that adult tissues harbour small primitive cells that are larger than platelets and smaller than erythrocytes.