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Bioessays. 2009 May;31(5):546-60. doi: 10.1002/bies.200800189.

Reprogramming cell fates: reconciling rarity with robustness.

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  • 1Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada.


The stunning possibility of "reprogramming" differentiated somatic cells to express a pluripotent stem cell phenotype (iPS, induced pluripotent stem cell) and the "ground state" character of pluripotency reveal fundamental features of cell fate regulation that lie beyond existing paradigms. The rarity of reprogramming events appears to contradict the robustness with which the unfathomably complex phenotype of stem cells can reliably be generated. This apparent paradox, however, is naturally explained by the rugged "epigenetic landscape" with valleys representing "preprogrammed" attractor states that emerge from the dynamical constraints of the gene regulatory network. This article provides a pedagogical primer to the fundamental principles of gene regulatory networks as integrated dynamic systems and reviews recent insights in gene expression noise and fate determination, thereby offering a formal framework that may help us to understand why cell fate reprogramming events are inherently rare and yet so robust.

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