What is a stem cell?

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The historical roots of the stem cell concept are traced with respect to its usage in embryology and in hematology. The modern consensus definition of stem cells, comprising both pluripotent stem cells in culture and tissue-specific stem cells in vivo, is explained and explored. Methods for identifying stem cells are discussed with respect to cell surface markers, telomerase, label retention and transplantability, and properties of the stem cell niche are explored. The CreER method for identifying stem cells in vivo is explained, as is evidence in favor of a stochastic rather than an obligate asymmetric form of cell division. In conclusion, it is found that stem cells do not possess any unique and specific molecular markers; and stem cell behavior depends on the environment of the cell as well as the stem cell's intrinsic qualities. Furthermore, the stochastic mode of division implies that stem cell behavior is a property of a cell population not of an individual cell. In this sense, stem cells do not exist in isolation but only as a part of multicellular system.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere323
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Developmental Biology
Issue number5
Early online date15 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2018


  • Cell lineage labeling
  • Hematopoiesis
  • Pluripotency
  • Stem cell
  • Stem cell markers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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