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PLoS One. 2008 Aug 28;3(8):e3086. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003086.

Stochasticity and the molecular mechanisms of induced pluripotency.

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Bone and Joint Research Group, Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration, Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, Institute of Developmental Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton, United Kingdom.


The generation of induced pluripotent stem cells from adult somatic cells by ectopic expression of key transcription factors holds significant medical promise. However, current techniques for inducing pluripotency rely on viral infection and are therefore not, at present, viable within a clinical setting. Thus, there is now a need to better understand the molecular basis of stem cell pluripotency and lineage specification in order to investigate alternative methods to induce pluripotency for clinical application. However, the complexity of the underlying molecular circuitry makes this a conceptually difficult task. In order to address these issues, we considered a computational model of transcriptional control of cell fate specification. The model comprises two mutually interacting sub-circuits: a central pluripotency circuit consisting of interactions between stem-cell specific transcription factors OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG coupled to a differentiation circuit consisting of interactions between lineage-specifying master genes.The molecular switches which arise from feedback loops within these circuits give rise to a well-defined sequence of successive gene restrictions corresponding to a controlled differentiation cascade in response to environmental stimuli. Furthermore, we found that this differentiation cascade is strongly unidirectional: once silenced, core transcription factors cannot easily be reactivated. In the context of induced pluripotency, this indicates that differentiated cells are robustly resistant to reprogramming to a more primitive state. However, our model suggests that under certain circumstances, amplification of low-level fluctuations in transcriptional status (transcriptional "noise") may be sufficient to trigger reactivation of the core pluripotency switch and reprogramming to a pluripotent state. This interpretation offers an explanation of a number of experimental observations concerning the molecular mechanisms of cellular reprogramming by defined factors and suggests a role for stochasticity in reprogramming of somatic cells to pluripotency.

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