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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003 Aug 29;358(1436):1363-70.

Specification of germ cell fate in mice.

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Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Institute, University of Cambridge, Tennis Court Road, Cambridge CB2 1QR, UK.


An early fundamental event during development is the segregation of germ cells from somatic cells. In many organisms, this is accomplished by the inheritance of preformed germ plasm, which apparently imposes transcriptional repression to prevent somatic cell fate. However, in mammals, pluripotent epiblast cells acquire germ cell fate in response to signalling molecules. We have used single cell analysis to study how epiblast cells acquire germ cell competence and undergo specification. Germ cell competent cells express Fragilis and initially progress towards a somatic mesodermal fate. However, a subset of these cells, the future primordial germ cells (PGCs), then shows rapid upregulation of Fragilis with concomitant transcriptional repression of a number of genes, including Hox and Smad genes. This repression may be a key event associated with germ cell specification. Furthermore, PGCs express Stella and other genes, such as Oct-4 that are associated with pluripotency. While these molecules are also detected in mature oocytes as maternally inherited factors, their early role is to regulate development and maintain pluripotency, and they do not serve the role of classical germline determinants.

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