During embryonic development, stem cells begin to take on specific identities, becoming distinct cell types with specialized characteristics and functions, in order to form the diverse organs and systems in our bodies. Cells rely on two main classes of regulators to define and maintain their identities; the first of these are master transcription factors, keystone proteins in each cell’s regulatory network, which keep the DNA sequences associated with crucial cell identity genes accessible for transcription — the process by which DNA is “read” into RNA. The other main regulators are signaling factors, which transmit information from the environment to the nucleus through a chain of proteins like a game of cellular telephone. Signaling factors can prompt changes in gene transcription as the cells react to that information.
One long-standing conundrum of how cell identity is determined is that many species, including humans, use the same core signaling pathways, with the same signaling factors, in all of their cells, yet this uniform machinery can cue a diverse array of cell-type specific gene activity, like an identical line of code being entered in many computers and causing each to start running a completely different program. New research from Whitehead Institute Member Richard Young, who is also a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published online in Molecular Cell on September 25, sheds light on how the same signaling factor can lead to so many distinct responses — with the help of a mechanism called phase separation…Full article