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Genomics. 2007 Jan;89(1):22-35. Epub 2006 Oct 19.

Cross-species transcriptional profiles establish a functional portrait of embryonic stem cells.

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Bioinformatics Unit, Research Resources Branch, National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, 333 Cassall Drive, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA.


An understanding of the regulatory mechanisms responsible for pluripotency in embryonic stem cells (ESCs) is critical for realizing their potential in medicine and science. Significant similarities exist among ESCs harvested from different species, yet major differences have also been observed. Here, by cross-species analysis of a large set of functional categories and all transcription factors and growth factors, we reveal conserved and divergent functional landscapes underlining fundamental and species-specific mechanisms that regulate ESC development. Global transcriptional trends derived from all expressed genes, instead of differentially expressed genes alone, were examined, allowing for a higher discriminating power in the functional portrait. We demonstrate that cross-species correlation of transcriptional changes that occur upon ESC differentiation is a powerful predictor of ESC-important biological pathways and functional cores within a pathway. Hundreds of functional modules, as defined by Gene Ontology, were associated with conserved expression patterns but bear no overt relationship to ESC development, suggestive of new mechanisms critical to ESC pluripotency. Yet other functional modules were not conserved; instead, they were significantly up-regulated in ESCs of either species, suggestive of species-specific regulation. The comparisons of ESCs across species and between human ESCs and embryonal carcinoma stem cells suggest that while pluripotency as an essential function in multicellular organisms is conserved throughout evolution, mechanisms primed for differentiation are less conserved and contribute substantially to the differences among stem cells derived from different tissues or species. Our findings establish a basis for defining the "stemness" properties of ESCs from the perspective of functional conservation and variation. The data and analyses resulting from this study provide a framework for new hypotheses and research directions and a public resource for functional genomics of ESCs.

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