Cells control their own fate by manipulating their environment

As different as muscle, blood, brain, and skin cells are from one another, they all share the same DNA. Stem cells’ transformation into these specialized cells— a process called cell fate determination —is controlled through various signals from their surroundings.

A recent Penn Engineering study suggests that cells may have more control over their fate than previously thought.

Jason Burdick, the Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, and Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, led the study. Robert Mauck, the Mary Black Ralston Professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the research.

Their study was published in Nature Materials.

The team designed a new imaging technique to visualize proteins that cells produced in their microenvironment. The researchers also developed two unique hydrogels with varied biophysical properties into which the cells were embedded and used in conjunction with their labeling technique.

“These hydrogels were engineered to represent many of the biophysical properties found in tissues in the body,” says Loebel.

The study found that cells began to secrete proteins within hours of being encapsulated in the hydrogels and that those proteins played an important role in changing the extracellular environment and regulating cells’ behavior, including cell fate determination. The cells essentially determined their own function by shaping their environment through proteins.

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