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Y Ono, N Shimozawa, K Muguruma, S Kimoto, K Hioki, M Tachibana, Y Shinkai, M Ito and T Kono

In mammals, cloned individuals can be produced from somatic cells. The combined use of gene targeting in embryonic stem cells and cloning contributes to the investigation of gene function in mammals. However, one of the major limitations to cloning is the low viability of cloned embryos, leading typically to high rates of pre- and postnatal death. The present study investigated whether cloning efficiency is influenced by the procedural differences involved in using transfected embryonic stem cells arrested at M phase for cloning by both single and serial transfer. In contrast to a previous study, in which fibroblasts were used, in the present study using embryonic stem cells there was no difference in the rate of production of cloned pups after the use of a single or serial nuclear transfer, although the proportion of blastocysts (70% versus 51%) was significantly higher (P < 0.001) after serial nuclear transfer. After embryo transfer of 445 blastocysts, 218 (49%) implanted and 27 (6% of blastocysts transferred) live pups were born. Of these 27 pups, 23 developed to adults of apparently normal fertility. Of these adults, 39% (n = 9) were derived from targeted embryonic stem cells, which is similar to the proportion of targeted embryonic stem cells in the population used for cloning. This study showed that cloning with embryonic stem cells is a viable procedure resulting in the production of transgenic cloned adults.

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Orly Lacham-Kaplan

Primordial germ cells appear in the embryo at about day 7 after coitum. They proliferate and migrate towards the genital ridge. Once there, they undergo differentiation into germ stem cells, known as ‘A spermatogonia’. These cells are the foundation of spermatogenesis. A spermatogonia commit to spermatogenesis, stay undifferentiated or degenerate. The differentiation of primordial germ cells to migratory, postmigratory and germ stem cells is dependent on gene expression and cellular interactions. Some of the genes that play a crucial role in germ cell differentiation are Steel, c-Kit, VASA, DAZL, fragilis, miwi, mili, mil1 and mil2. Their expression is stage specific, therefore allowing solid identification of germ cells at different developmental phases. In addition to the expression of these genes, other markers associated with germ cell development are nonspecific alkaline phosphatase activity, the stage specific embryonic antigen, the transcription factor Oct3/4 and β1- and α6-integrins. Commitment of cells to primordial germ cells and to A spermatogonia is also dependent on induction by the bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)-4. With this knowledge, researchers were able to isolate germ stem cells from embryonic stem cell-derived embryoid bodies, and drive these into gametes either in vivo or in vitro. Although no viable embryos were obtained from these gametes, the prospects are that this goal is not too far from being accomplished.

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Sonya A Hubbard and Caroline E Gargett

Endometrial cancer (EC) is the most common gynaecological malignancy affecting women in the western world. Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are defined as a subset of tumour cells with the capacity to self-renew and give rise to the differentiated cells that comprise the bulk of the tumour. Given that a rare population of epithelial stem/progenitor cells has been identified in human endometrium, it is possible that these cells or their progeny may be the source of the putative CSCs that may initiate and maintain EC. Studies have shown that some cells within EC have the capacity to initiate clones that undergo self-renewing cell division and form tumours in vivo that can be serially passaged, demonstrating self-renewal, proliferation and differentiation abilities of the potential EC stem cells (ECSCs). These potential ECSCs may be located within the tumour cell population expressing CD133 and/or within the side population. With the discovery of markers for ECSCs, it is hoped that ECSCs can be isolated and characterised, and that their role in the development of human EC will be further investigated. This knowledge opens the way for the development of new treatment modalities that target the CSCs, but spares normal endometrial stem/progenitor cells and other cells. Such treatments will be particularly useful for early-stage and pre-menopausal EC candidates where the uterus may be conserved, and for late-stage cases where hysterectomy is not curative and current treatments target the bulk tumour cells rather than CSCs.

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DG de Rooij

Spermatogonial stem cells (A(s) spermatogonia) are single cells that either renew themselves or produce A(pr) (paired) spermatogonia predestined to differentiate. In turn, the A(pr) divide into chains of A(al) (aligned) spermatogonia that also divide. The ratio between self-renewal and differentiation of the stem cells is regulated by glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor produced by Sertoli cells, while the receptors are expressed in stem cells. A(s), A(pr) and A(al) spermatogonia proliferate during part of the epithelial cycle forming many A(al) spermatogonia. During epithelial stage VIII, almost all A(al) spermatogonia, few A(pr) and very few A(s) spermatogonia differentiate into A1 spermatogonia. A number of molecules are involved in this differentiation step including the stem cell factor-c-kit system, the Dazl RNA binding protein, cyclin D(2) and retinoic acid. There is no fine regulation of the density of spermatogonial stem cells and consequently, in some areas, many A1 and, in other areas, few A1 spermatogonia are formed. An equal density of spermatocytes is then obtained by the apoptosis of A2, A3 or A4 spermatogonia to remove the surplus cells. The Bcl-2 family members Bax and Bcl-x(L) are involved in this density regulation. Several mechanisms are available to cope with major or minor shortages in germ cell production. After severe cell loss, stem cell renewal is preferred above differentiation and the period of proliferation of A(s), A(pr) and A(al) spermatogonia is extended. Minor shortages are dealt with, at least in part, by less apoptosis among A2-A4 spermatogonia.

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Massimo De Felici and Florencia Barrios

The function of female germline stem cells (FGSCs, also called oogonial stem cells) in the adult mammalian ovary is currently debated in the scientific community. As the evidence to support or discard the possible crucial role of this new class of germ cells in mammals has been extensively discussed, in this review, we wonder which could be their origin. We will assume that FGSCs are present in the post-natal ovaries and speculate as to what origin and characteristics such cells could have. We believe that the definition of these features might shed light on future experimental approaches that could clarify the ongoing debate.

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Emma S Lucas, Nigel P Dyer, Katherine Fishwick, Sascha Ott and Jan J Brosens

Endometrial stem-like cells, including mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and epithelial progenitor cells, are essential for cyclic regeneration of the endometrium following menstrual shedding. Emerging evidence indicates that endometrial MSCs (eMSCs) constitute a dynamic population of cells that enables the endometrium to adapt in response to a failed pregnancy. Recurrent miscarriage is associated with relative depletion of endometrial eMSCs, which not only curtails the intrinsic ability of the endometrium to adapt to reproductive failure but also compromises endometrial decidualization, an obligatory transformation process for embryo implantation. These novel findings should pave the way for more effective screening of women at risk of pregnancy failure before conception.

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T Amano, Y Kato and Y Tsunoda

The developmental potential of enucleated mouse oocytes receiving embryonic stem cells from ten lines with either the same or different genetic backgrounds using the cell fusion method was examined in vitro and in vivo. The development of nuclear-transferred oocytes into blastocysts was high (34-88%). However, there was no clear correlation between development into blastocysts after nuclear transfer and the chimaera formation rate of embryonic stem cells. The development into live young was low (1-3%) in all cell lines and 14 of 19 young died shortly after birth. Most of the live young had morphological abnormalities. Of the five remaining mice, two died at days 23 and 30 after birth, but the other three mice are still active at days 359 (mouse 1) and 338 (mice 4 and 5) after birth, with normal fertility. However, the reasons for the abnormalities and postnatal death of embryonic stem cell-derived mice are unknown.

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Eiji Mizutani, Hiroshi Ohta, Satoshi Kishigami, Nguyen Van Thuan, Takafusa Hikichi, Sayaka Wakayama, Mitsuko Kosaka, Eimei Sato and Teruhiko Wakayama

The success rate is generally higher when cloning mice from embryonic stem (ES) cell nuclei than from somatic cell nuclei, suggesting that the embryonic nature or the undifferentiated state of the donor cell increases cloning efficiency. We assessed the developmental ability of cloned embryos derived from cultured neural stem cell (NSC) nuclei and compared the success rate with that of embryos cloned from other donor cells such as differentiated NSCs, cumulus cells, Sertoli cells and ES cells in the mouse. The transfer of two-cell cloned embryos derived from cultured NSC nuclei into surrogate mothers produced five live cloned mice. However, the success rate (0.5%) was higher in embryos cloned from cultured NSC nuclei than from differentiated NSCs (0%), but lower than that obtained by cloning mice from other cell nuclei (2.2–3.5%). Although the in vitro developmental potential to the two-cell stage of the cloned embryos derived from NSC nuclei (73%) was similar to that of the cloned embryos derived from other somatic cell nuclei (e.g., 85% in Sertoli cells and 75% in cumulus cells), the developmental rate to the morula–blastocyst stage was only 7%. This rate is remarkably lower than that produced from other somatic cells (e.g., 50% in Sertoli cells and 54% in cumulus cells). These results indicate that the undifferentiated state of neural cells does not enhance the cloning efficiency in mice and that the arrest point for in vitro development of cloned embryos depends on the donor cell type.

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F. Du, J. R. Giles, R. H. Foote, K. H. Graves, X. Yang and R. W. Moreadith

Rabbit embryonic stem-like cells, characterized by embryoid body formation and differentiation into cell types representative of all three germ layers, were studied for their ability to promote early embryonic development after nuclear transfer. After culture of the reconstructed embryos, 23% (n = 35) developed successfully into morulae or blastocysts, compared with 34% (n = 62) for cloned embryos derived from nuclear transfer with embryonic blastomeres. The cloned embryos from the embryonic stem-like cells appeared normal, with an average of 26% inner cell mass cells, similar to that of control non-manipulated embryos (25%) or cloned embryos from blastomeres (25%). Thus, nuclear transfer of rabbit embryonic stem-like cells leads to early embryonic development that is indistinguishable from blastomere fusion. These results have implications for the development of gene targeting in a species (rabbit) that may be a more suitable model for studying certain human diseases. In addition, this technique may be applicable to other species from which putative embryonic stem cells have been derived, particularly agriculturally important animals.

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J L James, D G Hurley, T K J B Gamage, T Zhang, R Vather, P Pantham, P Murthi and L W Chamley

The placenta is responsible for all nutrient and gas exchange between mother and baby during pregnancy. The differentiation of specialised placental epithelial cells called trophoblasts is essential for placental function, but we understand little about how these populations arise. Mouse trophoblast stem cells have allowed us to understand many of the factors that regulate murine trophoblast lineage development, but the human placenta is anatomically very different from the mouse, and it is imperative to isolate a human trophoblast stem cell to understand human placental development. Here we have developed a novel methodology to isolate a Hoechst side-population of trophoblasts from early gestation placentae and compared their transcriptome to differentiated trophoblast populations (cytotrophoblasts and extravillous trophoblasts) using microarray technology. Side-population trophoblasts clustered as a transcriptomically distinct population but were more closely related to cytotrophoblasts than extravillous trophoblasts. Side-population trophoblasts up-regulated a number of genes characteristic of trophectoderm and murine trophoblast stem cells in comparison to cytotrophoblasts or extravillous trophoblasts and could be distinguished from both of these more mature populations by a unique set of 22 up-regulated genes, which were enriched for morphogenesis and organ development and the regulation of growth functions. Cells expressing two of these genes (LAMA2 and COL6A3) were distributed throughout the cytotrophoblast layer at the trophoblast/mesenchymal interface. Comparisons to previously published trophoblast progenitor populations suggest that the side-population trophoblasts isolated in this work are a novel human trophoblast population. Future work will determine whether these cells exhibit functional progenitor/stem cell attributes.