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PLoS One. 2009 Jul 21;4(7):e6286. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006286.

Neural differentiation of embryonic stem cells in vitro: a road map to neurogenesis in the embryo.

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Instituto de Medicina Molecular, Faculdade de Medicina de Lisboa, Lisboa, Portugal.



The in vitro generation of neurons from embryonic stem (ES) cells is a promising approach to produce cells suitable for neural tissue repair and cell-based replacement therapies of the nervous system. Available methods to promote ES cell differentiation towards neural lineages attempt to replicate, in different ways, the multistep process of embryonic neural development. However, to achieve this aim in an efficient and reproducible way, a better knowledge of the cellular and molecular events that are involved in the process, from the initial specification of neuroepithelial progenitors to their terminal differentiation into neurons and glial cells, is required.


In this work, we characterize the main stages and transitions that occur when ES cells are driven into a neural fate, using an adherent monolayer culture system. We established improved conditions to routinely produce highly homogeneous cultures of neuroepithelial progenitors, which organize into neural tube-like rosettes when they acquire competence for neuronal production. Within rosettes, neuroepithelial progenitors display morphological and functional characteristics of their embryonic counterparts, namely, apico-basal polarity, active Notch signalling, and proper timing of production of neurons and glia. In order to characterize the global gene activity correlated with each particular stage of neural development, the full transcriptome of different cell populations that arise during the in vitro differentiation protocol was determined by microarray analysis. By using embryo-oriented criteria to cluster the differentially expressed genes, we define five gene expression signatures that correlate with successive stages in the path from ES cells to neurons. These include a gene signature for a primitive ectoderm-like stage that appears after ES cells enter differentiation, and three gene signatures for subsequent stages of neural progenitor development, from an early stage that follows neural induction to a final stage preceding terminal differentiation.


Overall, our work confirms and extends the cellular and molecular parallels between monolayer ES cell neural differentiation and embryonic neural development, revealing in addition novel aspects of the genetic network underlying the multistep process that leads from uncommitted cells to differentiated neurons.

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