All of the tissues and organs of the body arise from one of three embryonic precursors: the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. The ectoderm contributes to several tissues, including the nervous system and the skin, but some studies have suggested that development into neurons requires nothing more than the absence of specific inhibitory signals.
This phenomenon has led biologists to formulate what is called the ‘neural default model’. “The simplest interpretation of the neural default model is that the neural fate is a ‘left-over’ choice, passively determined by the elimination of other pathways of differentiation,” explains Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. This model fails to address the identities of the factors that actively drive neuronal development, but new findings from Sasai and colleagues have spotlighted a single protein that appears to set this process into motion.
His team had previously designed a culture system that promotes neural differentiation of mouse embryonic stem (mES) cells, and they used this technique to identify genes that are specifically switched on in these cells. They identified one intriguing candidate, Zfp521, which activated several other genes involved in neural development, even when the mES cells were cultured in the presence of factors that would normally curb this process (Fig. 1).
When Sasai and colleagues examined expression in developing mouse embryos, they noted that the spatial and temporal distribution of Zfp521 activity closely mirrored known sites of neural differentiation. Likewise, early stage mouse embryos injected with mES cells in which Zfp521 expression was abrogated largely failed to incorporate these cells into the developing nervous system. By systematically identifying the genes whose expression is disrupted in the absence of Zfp521, the researchers were able to determine that this gene acts as a driver for the maturation of ectodermal cells into neuroectoderm, the developmental stage that immediately precedes formation of actual neural progenitors.
“The most important message of this study is that the neural fate is acquired by an active determination process,” says Sasai. Understanding how this developmental switch works could ultimately provide scientists with a powerful tool for efficiently transforming human stem cells into mature nervous tissue suitable for experimental use or even transplantation, although it remains to be determined whether human ES cells obey the exact same principles. “We have preliminary data showing a conserved essential role for Zfp521 in both species,” says Sasai, “but we need to analyze the similarities and differences in greater depth.”
The corresponding author for this highlight is based at the Laboratory for Organogenesis and Neurogenesis, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology
 Kamiya, D., Banno, S., Sasai, N., Ohgushi, M., Inomata, H., Watanabe, K., Kawada, M., Yakura, R., Kiyonari, H., Nakao, K. et al. Intrinsic transition of embryonic stem-cell differentiation into neural progenitors. Nature 470, 503–509 (2011).
 Watanabe, K., Kamiya, D., Nishiyama, A., Katayama, T., Nozaki, S., Kawasaki, H., Watanabe, Y., Mizuseki, K. & Sasai, Y. Directed differentiation of telencephalic precursors from embryonic stem cells. Nature Neuroscience 8, 288–296 (2005).
Researchers uncover protein-based “cancer signature”
05.12.2016 | Universität Basel
The Nagoya Protocol Creates Disadvantages for Many Countries when Applied to Microorganisms
05.12.2016 | Leibniz-Institut DSMZ-Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen GmbH
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
05.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering