DOI: 10.1242/dev.110.4.1001 ISSN:

Stem cells: attributes, cycles, spirals, pitfalls and uncertainties. Lessons for and from the crypt

C.S. Potten, M. Loeffler
  • Developmental Biology
  • Molecular Biology

We consider some of the problems involved in current discussions on stem cells in adult mammalian tissues. The present concepts involve a number of pitfalls, weaknesses and logical, semantic and classification problems. This indicates the necessity for new and well-defined concepts that are amenable to experimental analysis. One of the major difficulties in considering stem cells is that they are defined in terms of their functional capabilities which can only be assessed by testing the abilities of the cells, which itself may alter their characteristics during the assay procedure: a situation similar to the uncertainty principle in physics. The terms that describe stem cell functions are often not well defined and are used loosely, which can lead to confusion. If such context-dependent interactions exist between the manipulation and measurement process and the challenged stem cells, the question of, for example, the number of stem cells, in a tissue has to be posed in a new way. Rather than obtaining a single number one might end up with various different numbers under different circumstances, all being complementary. This might suggest that stemness is not a property but a spectrum of capabilities from which to choose. This concept might facilitate a reconciliation between the different and sometimes opposing experimental results. Given certain experimental evidence, we have attempted to provide a novel concept to describe structured cell populations in tissues involving stem cells, transit cells and mature cells. It is based on the primary assumption that the proliferation and differentiation/maturation processes are in principle independent entities in the sense that each may proceed without necessarily affecting the other. Stem cells may divide without maturation while cells approaching functional competence may mature but do not divide. In contrast, transit cells divide and mature showing intermediate properties between stem cells and mature functional cells. The need to describe this transition process and the variable coupling between proliferation and maturation leads us to formulate a spiral model of cell and tissue organisation. This concept is illustrated for the intestinal epithelium. It is concluded that the small intestinal crypts contain 4–16 actual stem cells in steady state but up to 30–40 potential stem cells (clonogenic cells) which may take over stem cell properties following perturbations. This implies that transit cells can under certain circumstances behave like actual stem cells while they undergo maturation under other conditions. There is also evidence that the proliferation and differentiation/maturation processes are subject to controls that ultimately lead to a change in the spiral trajectories.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)