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Heiner Niemann, X Cindy Tian, W Allan King and Rita S F Lee

The birth of ‘Dolly’, the first mammal cloned from an adult donor cell, has sparked a flurry of research activities to improve cloning technology and to understand the underlying mechanism of epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus. Especially in ruminants, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is frequently associated with pathological changes in the foetal and placental phenotype and has significant consequences for development both before and after birth. The most critical factor is epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus from its differentiated status into the totipotent state of the early embryo. This involves an erasure of the gene expression program of the respective donor cell and the establishment of the well-orchestrated sequence of expression of an estimated number of 10 000–12 000 genes regulating embryonic and foetal development. The following article reviews the present knowledge on the epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus, with emphasis on DNA methylation, imprinting, X-chromosome inactivation and telomere length restoration in bovine development. Additionally, we briefly discuss other approaches towards epigenetic nuclear reprogramming, including the fusion of somatic and embryonic stem cells and the overexpression of genes crucial in the formation and maintenance of the pluripotent status. Improvements in our understanding of this dramatic epigenetic reprogramming event will be instrumental in realising the great potential of SCNT for basic biological research and for various agricultural and biomedical applications.

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R. Anderson, K. Schaible, J. Heasman and C. Wylie

During normal embryonic development, mammalian germ cells use both cell migration and aggregation to form the primitive sex cords. Germ cells must be able to interact with their environment and each other to accomplish this; however, the molecular basis of early germ cell adhesion is not well characterized. Differential adhesion is also thought to occur in the adult seminiferous tubules, since germ cells move from the periphery to the lumen as they differentiate. In a screen for additional adhesion molecules expressed by the germ line, expression of the homophilic adhesion molecule, Ep-CAM, was identified in embryonic, neonatal and adult germ cells using immunocytochemistry and flow cytometry with an Ep-CAM-specific monoclonal antibody. At embryonic stages, germ cells were found to express Ep-CAM during migration at embryonic day 10.5 and early gonad assembly at embryonic day 12.5. Expression of Ep-CAM was also found on neonatal male and female germ cells. In the adult testis, Ep-CAM was detected only on spermatogonia, and was absent from more differentiated cells. Finally, embryonic stem cells were shown to express this receptor. It is proposed that Ep-CAM plays a role in the development of the germ line and the behaviour of totipotent cells.

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Néstor Saiz and Berenika Plusa

During mammalian preimplantation development, the fertilised egg gives rise to a group of pluripotent embryonic cells, the epiblast, and to the extraembryonic lineages that support the development of the foetus during subsequent phases of development. This preimplantation period not only accommodates the first cell fate decisions in a mammal's life but also the transition from a totipotent cell, the zygote, capable of producing any cell type in the animal, to cells with a restricted developmental potential. The cellular and molecular mechanisms governing the balance between developmental potential and lineage specification have intrigued developmental biologists for decades. The preimplantation mouse embryo offers an invaluable system to study cell differentiation as well as the emergence and maintenance of pluripotency in the embryo. Here we review the most recent findings on the mechanisms controlling these early cell fate decisions. The model that emerges from the current evidence indicates that cell differentiation in the preimplantation embryo depends on cellular interaction and intercellular communication. This strategy underlies the plasticity of the early mouse embryo and ensures the correct specification of the first mammalian cell lineages.

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Jingmei Hou, Shi Yang, Hao Yang, Yang Liu, Yun Liu, Yanan Hai, Zheng Chen, Ying Guo, Yuehua Gong, Wei-Qiang Gao, Zheng Li and Zuping He

Infertility is a major and largely incurable disease caused by disruption and loss of germ cells. It affects 10–15% of couples, and male factor accounts for half of the cases. To obtain human male germ cells ‘especially functional spermatids’ is essential for treating male infertility. Currently, much progress has been made on generating male germ cells, including spermatogonia, spermatocytes, and spermatids, from various types of stem cells. These germ cells can also be used in investigation of the pathology of male infertility. In this review, we focused on advances on obtaining male differentiated germ cells from different kinds of stem cells, with an emphasis on the embryonic stem (ES) cells, the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs). We illustrated the generation of male differentiated germ cells from ES cells, iPS cells and SSCs, and we summarized the phenotype for these stem cells, spermatocytes and spermatids. Moreover, we address the differentiation potentials of ES cells, iPS cells and SSCs. We also highlight the advantages, disadvantages and concerns on derivation of the differentiated male germ cells from several types of stem cells. The ability of generating mature and functional male gametes from stem cells could enable us to understand the precise etiology of male infertility and offer an invaluable source of autologous male gametes for treating male infertility of azoospermia patients.

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Atsushi Fukuda, Atsushi Mitani, Toshiyuki Miyashita, Hisato Kobayashi, Akihiro Umezawa and Hidenori Akutsu

Spatiotemporal expression of transcription factors is crucial for genomic reprogramming. Pou5f1 (Oct4) is an essential transcription factor for reprogramming. A recent study reported that OCT4A, which is crucial for establishment and maintenance of pluripotent cells, is expressed in oocytes, but maternal OCT4A is dispensable for totipotency induction. Whereas another study reported that OCT4B, which is not related to pluripotency, is predominantly expressed instead of OCT4A during early preimplantation phases in mice. To determine the expression states of OCT4 in murine preimplantation embryos, we conducted in-depth expression and functional analyses. We found that pluripotency-related OCT4 mainly localizes to the cytoplasm in early preimplantation phases, with no major nuclear localization until the 8–16-cell stage despite high expression in both oocytes and early embryos. RNA-sequencing analysis using oocytes and early preimplantation embryos could not identify the splice variants creating alternative forms of OCT4 protein. Forced expression of OCT4 in zygotes by the injection of polyadenylated mRNA clearly showed nuclear localization of OCT4 protein around 3–5-fold greater than physiological levels and impaired developmental competency in a dose-dependent manner. Embryos with modest overexpression of OCT4 could develop to the 16-cell stage; however, more than 50% of the embryos were arrested at this stage, similar to the results for OCT4 depletion. In contrast, extensive overexpression of OCT4 resulted in complete arrest at the 2-cell stage accompanied by downregulation of zygotically activated genes and repetitive elements related to the totipotent state. These results demonstrated that OCT4 protein localization was spatiotemporally altered during preimplantation development, and strict control of Oct4 protein levels was essential for proper totipotential reprogramming.

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Amy Ralston and Janet Rossant

The flurry of recent publications regarding reprogramming of mature cell types to induced pluripotent stem cells raises the question: what exactly is pluripotency? A functional definition is provided by examination of the developmental potential of pluripotent stem cell types. Defining pluripotency at the molecular level, however, can be a greater challenge. Here, we examine the emerging list of genes associated with induced pluripotency, with particular attention to their functional requirement in the mouse embryo. Knowledge of the requirement for these genes in the embryo and in embryonic stem cells will advance our understanding of how to reverse the developmental clock for therapeutic benefit.

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Fariborz Izadyar, Francis Pau, Joel Marh, Natalia Slepko, Tracy Wang, Rafael Gonzalez, Thomas Ramos, Kyle Howerton, Chauncey Sayre and Francisco Silva

Spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs) maintain spermatogenesis by self-renewal and generation of spermatogonia committed to differentiation. Under certain in vitro conditions, SSCs from both neonatal and adult mouse testis can reportedly generate multipotent germ cell (mGC) lines that have characteristics and differentiation potential similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells. However, mGCs generated in different laboratories showed different germ cell characteristics, i.e., some retain their SSC properties and some have lost them completely. This raises an important question: whether mGC lines have been generated from different subpopulations in the mouse testes. To unambiguously identify and track germ line stem cells, we utilized a transgenic mouse model expressing green fluorescence protein under the control of a germ cell-specific Pou5f1 (Oct4) promoter. We found two distinct populations among the germ line stem cells with regard to their expression of transcription factor Pou5f1 and c-Kit receptor. Only the POU5F1+/c-Kit+ subset of mouse germ line stem cells, when isolated from either neonatal or adult testes and cultured in a complex mixture of growth factors, generates cell lines that express pluripotent ES markers, i.e., Pou5f1, Nanog, Sox2, Rex1, Dppa5, SSEA-1, and alkaline phosphatase, exhibit high telomerase activity, and differentiate into multiple lineages, including beating cardiomyocytes, neural cells, and chondrocytes. These data clearly show the existence of two distinct populations within germ line stem cells: one destined to become SSC and the other with the ability to generate multipotent cell lines with some pluripotent characteristics. These findings raise interesting questions about the relativity of pluripotency and the plasticity of germ line stem cells.

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Go Nagamatsu and Katsuhiko Hayashi

Reconstitution in culture of biological processes, such as differentiation and organization, is a key challenge in regenerative medicine, and one in which stem cell technology plays a central role. Pluripotent stem cells and spermatogonial stem cells are useful materials for reconstitution of germ cell development in vitro, as they are capable of differentiating into gametes. Reconstitution of germ cell development, termed in vitro gametogenesis, will provide an experimental platform for a better understanding of germ cell development, as well as an alternative source of gametes for reproduction, with the potential to cure infertility. Since germ cells are the cells for ‘the next generation’, both the culture system and its products must be carefully evaluated. In this issue, we summarize the progress in in vitro gametogenesis, most of which has been made using mouse models, as well as the future challenges in this field.

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Irina Polejaeva and Shoukhrat Mitalipov

Mouse embryonic chimeras are a well-established tool for studying cell lineage commitment and pluripotency. Experimental chimeras were successfully produced by combining two or more preimplantation embryos or by introducing into host embryo cultured pluripotent embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Chimera production using genetically modified ESCs became the method of choice for the generation of knockout or knockin mice. Although the derivation of ESCs or ESC-like cells has been reported for other species, only mouse and rat pluripotent stem cells have been shown to contribute to germline-competent chimeras, which is the defining feature of ESCs. Herein, we describe different approaches employed for the generation of embryonic chimeras, define chimera-competent cell types, and describe cases of spontaneous chimerism in humans. We also review the current state of derivation of pluripotent stem cells in several species and discuss outcomes of various chimera studies when such cells are used.

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Ha Thi Nguyen, Kurt Jacobs and Claudia Spits

Human pluripotent stem cells have the capacity to self-renew indefinitely and the ability to differentiate into all cell types of a human body. These characteristics instill them with an enormous promise in regenerative medicine, where they could be used in cell, tissue and even organ-based replacement therapy. In this review, we discuss their potential clinical applications and the advantages and pitfalls for the different types of human pluripotent stem cells to transition from the bench to the bedside. We provide an overview of the current clinical trials, and the specific challenges we are still facing, including immune compatibility, suboptimal differentiation, risk of tumor formation and genome instability.