Stem cells and introduction to cell differentiation and specialisation

Specialised cell examples are described, their different functions explained and how stem cells can be used in medicine

Doc Brown's Biology Revision Notes

Suitable for GCSE/IGCSE/O level Biology/Science courses or equivalent

 This page will help you answer questions such as ...

 Why do cells become specialised? What is the function of an egg cell?

 What is the function of a sperm cell? What are stem cells?

Why are cells described as haploid or diploid?

How can stem cell research help certain medical conditions?

Know and understand that cells may be specialised to carry out a particular function - differentiation.

Pre-reading: Introduction to plant and animal cell structure and function gcse biology revision notes

These notes about cell specialisation and specialised cell function are developed in detail on other pages.

See also Introduction to the organisation of cells => tissues => organs => organ systems (e.g. in humans)

The specialisation of cells

Undifferentiated cells are called stem cells and develop into all the different types of cells an organism needs to grow and develop.

On the right is a diagram of the basic structure of an animal stem cell which has the features characteristic to most cells e.g. membrane, nucleus of DNA/RNA for instructions, mitochondria for respiration, cytoplasm, vacuoles, ribosomes for making proteins etc.

A stem cell nucleus contains ALL the instructions to switch genes 'on and off' so it has the ability to change into any specialised cell needed by an organism.

Depending on the instructions a stem cell receives, it can divide by mitosis producing new cells which can then differentiate into types of cells for specific functions.

Multicellular organisms (eukaryotic) contain a variety of cells, with different structures, which are adapted - specialised, to perform a variety of functions.

Differentiation is the process by which a cell develops into a form to do its specialised role.

Cells which have a particular structure adapted for a particular function are called specialised cells.

In cell differentiation, cells become specialised by switching genes off and on to form tissues with particular functions.

In the process of differentiation the stem cells develop different sub-cellular structures to turn into the different types of cells - specialisation.

The specialised cells can now carry out their important specific functions - essential for the efficient and healthy viability of any organism.

Most differentiation occurs as an organism develops - stem cells are found in early human embryos.

In most animal cells, this ability to differentiate is lost at early stage of development once the cells have become specialised. But, most plant cells retain the ability to differentiate throughout the life of the plant.

The cells that differentiate in mature animals are mainly used for replacing damaged/dead cells e.g. skin or blood cells.

Skin cells live for 14 to 21 days and blood cells have a lifetime of 80 to 120 days.

Reminder: Other cells, stem cells, are undifferentiated.

For more on stem cells see later section on stem cells and their potential uses on this page.

Examples of specialised animal cells - adapted to their functions

Note that stem cells are undifferentiated and have not changed into a specialised cells in the developing embryo.

See also Introduction to the organisation of cells => tissues => organs => organ systems (e.g. in humans)

Gamete cells - the function of egg cells and sperm cells in sexual reproduction

Egg cells and sperm cells are the specialised cells of sexual reproduction.

In sexual reproduction the nucleus of an egg cell fuses with the nucleus of a sperm cell to produce a fertilised egg.

The fertilised egg develops into an embryo.

Both the sperm cell and an egg cell are referred to as being haploid, because their nuclei only contain half the number of chromosomes that you find in a normal body cell.

This ensures that when the egg and sperm nuclei combine at fertilisation the created cell will have the right number of chromosomes (now referred to as a diploid cell).


The egg cell - its structure and its adapted functions

  Simple diagram of egg cell

The principal function of the egg cell is to convey the female DNA and to provide nutrients for the developing embryo in the early stages of the organism's development.

The egg cell has a haploid nucleus (half set of chromosomes) and the cytoplasm contains the nutrients to feed the growing embryo.

Immediately after fertilisation the egg cell's membrane changes structure to stop another sperm getting into the egg cell and this ensures the right amount of DNA is present in the fertilised cell.

See also CELL DIVISION - cell cycle - mitosis and meiosis in sexual reproduction


The sperm cell - its structure and its adapted functions

  Simplified diagram of sperm cell

The sperm cell, like the egg cell has a haploid nucleus (half of the full set of required chromosomes).

The principal function of a sperm cell is to convey the male's DNA to the female's DNA in the egg.

The sperm cell has a long tail and streamlined head to enable it to swim efficiently to the egg.

A sperm cell contains lots of mitochondria (sites of respiration - releasing energy) in the middle section to provide the energy for it to swim to the egg cell.

At the front of the head of a sperm cell is an acrosome where enzymes are stored. These enzymes are needed so that the sperm cell can digest its way through the membrane of the egg cell to fertilise it.

See also CELL DIVISION - cell cycle - mitosis and meiosis in sexual reproduction


Ciliated Epithelial Cells

  Simple diagram of epithelial cells

Organ surfaces are lined with epithelial cells. Some types of epithelial cells are adapted with hairs called cilia on the top of the cell's surface. The function of these ciliated epithelium cells is to move substances in one particular direction along the surface of the tissue. The hair-like structure of the cilia beat to move the material along. A good example is the lining of your air passage, the surface of which is covered in lots of epithelial cells. The 'beating' cilia move mucous and any particles from air trapped on the surface up the throat and away from your delicate lungs. This allows the mucous to be swallowed or blow out through your nose.


Muscle cells  (need x-section view)

Muscle cells form soft tissue found in most animals, they are relatively long and must be able to contract quickly.

They contain protein filaments of actin and myosin that slide past one another.

This adaptation produces a contraction that changes both the length and the shape of the cell.

The contraction can be reversed and allows muscle tissue cells to function in such a way as to produce force and motion.

Muscle cells contain lots of mitochondria to supply the larger amounts of energy needed to work the muscles.


Nerve cells

Neurones are nerve cells that carry information as tiny electrical signals from one part of the body to anther e.g. between the brain and muscles.

These sensory neurone cells are elongated and adapted to cover the relatively 'long' distances over which they have to carry the nerve signals from receptors to the spinal cord and brain.

Nerve cells have branched connections at their ends to form a network of connections throughout the body.

See An introduction to the nervous system including the reflex arc  gcse biology revision notes


Red blood cells

Red blood cells are adapted to carry oxygen via the haemoglobin molecules inside them. Without this adapted cell transportation of oxygen you could not have efficient energy releasing respiration in mitochondria.


White blood cells

White blood cells are part of the immune system.

White blood cell change shape to engulf a microbe thereby ingest disease-causing bacteria and destroy them.

White cells can produce antibodies to destroy pathogens.

For more details see The human circulatory system - heart, lungs, blood, blood vessels

Specialised plant cells

Root hair cells - are adapted to absorb water and minerals from soil and then through the root system to transport these minerals around the plant. Root hair cells are long and cover the surface of plant roots to create a large surface area to absorb water and minerals.

Xylem cells - are not living cells, but rod-like cells that form hollow tubes that can move water and dissolved minerals from the roots around the plant.

Phloem cells - phloem vessels (columns of living cells) move dissolved sugars, produced during photosynthesis, and other soluble food molecules from the leaves to growing tissues (e.g. the tips of roots and shoots) and storage tissues (e.g. in the roots).

Palisade leaf cells - their structure is adapted to support the sites of photosynthesis. Their tall and thin shape allows lots of light to be absorbed and have a large surface area for absorbing carbon dioxide. Palisade cells contain lots of chloroplasts, subcellular structures that contain the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis and the shape allows lots of them to be packed together on the top side of a leaf for maximum exposure to light - essential for photosynthesis.  See diagram below.

Guard leaf cells - can open and close the pores (stomata) in leaves and allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass in and out.  See diagram above.

For details see Transport and gas exchange in plants, transpiration, absorption of nutrients, leaf and root structure

and Photosynthesis, importance explained, limiting factors affecting rate, leaf adaptations  gcse biology revision

Stem cells

Most types of animal cells differentiate at an early stage whereas many plant cells retain the ability to differentiate throughout life.

In mature animals, cell division is mainly restricted to replacement of damaged or dead cells.

Most differentiation occurs as an organism develops - embryonic stem cells are found in early human embryos.

Initially, the cells in an embryo are all the same and referred to as embryonic stem cells.

Stem cells are undifferentiated and have not changed into a specialised cells in the developing embryo.

Stem cells are found in early human embryos.

Since they are unspecialised, they are able to divide and produce any type of specialised cell (like those described so far on this page), but stem cells lose this ability as the animal matures.

It seems remarkable that all the different types of cell found in the human body all come from a few cells in the early embryo!

AND, this emphasises how important stem cells are for growth and development.

In human embryos the cells are unspecialised as far as the eight cell stage after three cell divisions by mitosis.

The process of stem cells becoming specialised is called differentiation.

Cell differentiation enables the embryo to grow and develop tissues - groups of specialised cells working together to perform a particular function e.g. skin, muscle, organs etc.

Adults also have stem cells in their bone marrow but these can only be converted into a few specific type of cells - so only quite limited specialisation is possible.

The stem cells in the bone marrow are important in replacing dead cells e.g. producing new skin or red blood cells, but they are not as versatile as embryonic stem cells - they cannot produce any type of cell.

All body cells contain the same genes, this differs from specialised cells in which most genes are not active.

This means specialised cells only produce the specific proteins they need.

Stem cells can switch any gene 'on' or 'off' during their development.

Genes which are switched on ('active') facilitate the production of proteins that will determine the type of specialised cell a stem cell becomes.

The potential uses of stem cells, particularly in medicine

Cells from early human embryos and adult bone marrow, called stem cells, can be made to differentiate into many different types of cells, e.g .nerve cells - so have the potential to be converted into any type of cell found in the human body.

However, whereas early embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any type of specialised cell, adults only have stem cells in a few places like bone marrow and these can only turn into a few types of cell e.g. blood cells.

Since human stem cells have the ability to develop into any kind of human cell, they have great potential for use in treating certain medical conditions.

As the embryo develops, the stem cells divide, producing more stem cells, but also differentiated cells - the process of differentiation in which cells for a specific specialised function are produced e.g. cells for skin, organ tissue, blood cells etc.

It is possible to extract stem cells from early human embryos and adult bone marrow and reproduce (growing) them under different particular conditions so that they differentiate into particular types of specialised cells.

After growing the embryonic stem cells you can then stimulate them to differentiate into specialised cells for use in further research or medical applications - treatments.

In the laboratory you can produce clones of stem cells - genetically engineered identical cells.

Doctors are already using stem cells to cure some diseases e.g. sickle cell anaemia can sometimes be cured with a bone marrow transplant containing adult stem cells that produce new red blood cells.

These embryonic stem cells can be used to treat various medical conditions such as replacing diseased damaged tissue or tissue damage from injury e.g.

initiate new nerve cell connections for people paralysed by spinal injury,

transplant new cardiac/heart muscle cells to replace tissue of people suffering from heart disease,

insulin-producing cells for diabetics,

treating leukaemia - replacing rapidly produced abnormal white cells with normal healthy cells.

Quite simply, there is huge potential from stem cell research and application to alleviate many medical conditions, which up to now, have been very difficult to treat - hence the huge scientific interest in the potential for new cures - but such strategies are not without risks and hot debates on the ethical issues involved.

e.g. treatment with stem cells may be able to help conditions such as paralysis and it is hoped to be able to grow nerve cells for people disabled by a spinal injury.


Treating leukaemia (leukemia)

Leukaemia is a type of cancer found in your blood and bone marrow and is caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells.

These abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection and impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.

Adults have stem cells in their bone marrow but these can only be converted into a few specific type of cells - so only quite limited specialisation is possible.

The stem cells in the bone marrow are important in replacing dead cells e.g. producing new red blood cells.

Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow.

Leukaemia can be successfully treated using stem cell technology.

You may have heard the phrase 'bone marrow transplant' - this involves treating a patient with a supply of healthy stem cells to differentiate into specific healthy cells to replace damaged or faulty cells e.g. in this case, blood cells.

A stem cell or bone marrow transplant is a gene therapy procedure that involves replacing damaged bone marrow with healthy bone marrow stem cells.

It isn't a transplant of an actual organ like a lung or heart, but the blood system can be considered as a tissue system.

A stem cell transplant involves destroying any unhealthy blood cells and replacing them with stem cells removed from the blood or bone marrow.

The bone marrow contains the stem cells that become specialised to form any type of blood cell, so the transplanted bone marrow produces the healthy blood cells.

A stem cell transplant can involve taking healthy stem cells from the blood or bone marrow of one person ideally a close family member with the same or similar tissue type and transferring them to another person.

Stem cells in bone marrow produce three important types of blood cells : red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body, white blood cells which help fight infection and platelets which help stop bleeding.

Bone marrow transplants are not only used to treat sufferers of leukaemia, but also patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and sickle cell anaemia.

A stem cell transplant has 5 main stages. These are:

  1. Tests and examinations to assess your general level of health

  2. Harvesting the process of obtaining the stem cells to be used in the transplant, either from you or a donor

  3. Conditioning treatment with chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy to prepare your body for the transplant

  4. Transplanting the stem cells

  5. Recovery


Therapeutic cloning

One of the latest developments is called therapeutic cloning.

An embryo can be modified to have the same genetic information as the patient.

This means these stem cells have the same genes and less likely to be rejected by the patient's body.


Some risks and concerns

Stem cells divide very quickly and if the speed of cell division cannot be controlled inside a patient a tumor may develop.

Inside cells viruses can co-exist with their host. If, unknowingly, donor stem cells are infected with a virus, this virus can be passed on to the patient under treatment worsening their condition - a case of unwanted disease transmission!

Transplant rejection - unfortunately, if the transplanted cells/tissues/organs aren't grown using the patient's own stem cells, the patient's body might recognise the donor cells as 'foreign' and trigger the usual immune response to attack and remove invasive cells.

Quite often, the transplant patient has to take drugs to suppress the body's natural immune response, but this makes the patient more susceptible to other diseases.

The problem of rejection can be minimised by using the patient's own stem cells from somewhere else in the body - the idea being the body's immune system will recognise them as non-foreign and not offer a response.


Stem cell research and its applications are very controversial, despite the obvious great medical benefit to individual patients.

The ethical issue of using embryos for medical purposes is abhorrent to some people who would argue that human embryos shouldn't be used to provide stem cells because the embryo is destroyed in the process - removing one that had the potential for human life.

This is the argument of 'potential life' versus help for seriously ill 'living people' i.e. each embryo has the potential to develop into a human being, but equally potently, using embryonic stem cells might save a life. In other words the rights of suffering patients overrides the rights of the embryo.

It is possible to use unwanted embryos from fertility clinics because there is no other source of universal stem cells and these unwanted embryos would be destroyed. The unwanted embryos often come from fertility clinics and would be destroyed if not used for research purposes - but this argument would not satisfy campaigners want to completely ban the use of human embryos.

Many campaigners believe scientific research should be directed towards finding and developing other sources of stem cells and avoid the use of human embryos.

Stem cell research is allowed in some countries like the UK, but there are very strict rules and guidelines as to how it can be carried out.

Stem cell research is completely banned in some countries.

However, there are stocks of stem cells that scientists can use to continue their research without involving the use of more embryos - this is allowed in the UK but not in the USA.


Plant stem cells - the production of identical plants

In plants, the only cells that divide by mitosis are found in plant tissues called meristems.

Meristem tissue is found in the tips of roots and shoots - the parts of plants that are growing.

Meristems make unspecialised cells that can divide and form any type of cell the plant needs.

These unspecialised cells are effectively acts as 'embryonic' stem cells.

However, unlike human stem cells, they can differentiate to form any type of cell for the lifetime of the plant.

These unspecialised cells can form the specialised tissue cells of the xylem and phloem.

Plant stem cells can be used to make clones - so identical genetic copies of a plant can be grown quickly and cheaply.

This means plant growers can grow crops of identical plants that have been genetically engineered to have more desirable features for farmers e.g. increased size of wheat grain, more disease resistant - but GM crops are also a controversial topic too!

Cloning has an important application in preserving rare species of plants - to grow more of those in danger of becoming extinct.

See Hormone control of plant growth and uses of plant hormones  gcse biology revision notes

Pre-reading: Introduction to plant and animal cell structure and function gcse biology revision notes

These notes about cell specialisation and specialised cell function are developed in detail on other pages.

and for the bigger picture Introduction to the organisation of cells => tissues => organs => organ systems (e.g. humans)

GCSE Cell biology revision notes index

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Stem cells and an introduction to cell specialisation gcse biology revision notes

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CELL DIVISION - cell cycle - mitosis and meiosis in sexual reproduction    gcse biology revision notes

Genetics - from DNA to GM and lots in between!

DNA and RNA structure and Protein Synthesis  gcse biology revision notes

GENOME - gene expression - considering chromosomes, alleles, genotype, phenotype, variations

An introduction to genetic variation and the formation and consequence of mutations  gcse biology

Introduction to the inheritance of characteristics and genetic diagrams (including Punnett squares) 

Edexcel gcse 9-1 biology: Be able to describe how specialised cells are adapted to their function, including: (a) sperm cells acrosome, haploid nucleus, mitochondria and tail (b) egg cells nutrients in the cytoplasm, haploid nucleus and changes in the cell membrane after fertilisation (c) ciliated epithelial cells

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