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What is Cell Differentiation?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cell differentiation is a process in which a generic cell develops into a specific type of cell in response to specific triggers from the body or the cell itself. This is the process which allows a single celled zygote to develop into a multicellular adult organism which can contain hundreds of different types of cells. In addition to being critical to embryonic development, cell differentiation also plays a role in the function of many organisms, especially complex mammals, throughout their lives.

When a single cell has the capability of developing into any kind of cell, it is known as totipotent. In mammals, the zygote and the embryo during early stages of development are totipotent, for example. Cells which can differentiate into several different cell types, but not all, are considered to be pluripotent. In both cases, the nucleus is the same, containing all of the genetic information needed to encode the entire organism, but only certain genes are activated.

When an embryo develops, cell differentiation is critical, because it allows the developing organism to create numerous different needed cell types, from neurons which will make up the brain to epidermal cells which will create the upper layers of skin. Once mature, the organism will have germ cells, somatic cells, and adult stem cells. Germ cells are haploid cells which are used in reproduction, while somatic cells make up most of the cells in the body, with over 250 known kinds of cell in the human body alone.

Adult stem cells which are able to engage in cell differentiation are found in several areas of the body. One of the most important sites for adult stem cells is the bone marrow. The stem cells in the bone marrow have the capability of developing into several different types of blood cell to meet the body's demand for new blood. The balance of blood cells in the body signals the bone marrow to produce more or less of a particular time to keep the proportions appropriate.

Some organisms are capable of de-differentiation, in which specialized cells become more basic. This process is involved in the regeneration of limbs in animals which are capable of this feat, with the basic cells differentiating again to construct the needed tissues, bones, and other types of cells for the replacement. The exact processes behind cell differentiation and de-differentiation are not fully understood, although researchers have studied cells capable of these feats extensively, as the mechanics of this process could have valuable implications for the medical field.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993090 — On Oct 22, 2015

Is this the same as tissue differentiation?

By anon319107 — On Feb 11, 2013

What are the signals and activators in the process of cell differentiation? (More specifically in the oocyte cytoplasm.) There are four signals but I cannot seem to find the names of them. Please help.

By anon318626 — On Feb 08, 2013

How does cell differentiation relate to gene expression?

By biology — On Dec 30, 2012

Gene function and their expressions depend on the activity of the brain and their specific functions of gene expression of cell growth and differentiation. Therefore, without brain activity, how come cells are proliferating and differentiating in an in vitro condition? Does the brain perform cell gene expression?

By anon296386 — On Oct 11, 2012

Every human being was once a single cell with reference to pre-embryonic and post-embryonic development, but upon undergoing mitotic division the cell has grown into a huge person. This is chiefly because of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that tend to control gene expression and hence, different genes are turned on and others off.

This selective gene expression leads to specific proteins being synthesized, hence the different proteins produced finally form different structures of the human body.

By anon146055 — On Jan 25, 2011

Thank you. that was helpful.

By ProudMom2 — On Sep 18, 2010

Bone marrow is very important in research and can be used to promote healing within by transplanting from inside your bone to other parts of your body. I have three sequential, damaged discs in my neck and my doctor wants to perform experimental surgery using this method. The idea is to try and promote regeneration in that area. I am looking for any spine regeneration success stories.

By AZgirl32 — On Sep 18, 2010

envelope1- To answer your question, certain types do only occur during pregnancy. A good place to read more on your question is under ‘adult stem cells’ and ‘bone marrow’ on wiseGeek. I am doing research on this exact topic for a biology assignment.

By envelope1 — On Sep 18, 2010

Does cell differentiation only occur during pregnancy? The fetus forms at different stages and each group of cells is basically grouped to form certain organs and skin features. But I think it is strange that a person has a genetic disposition to have a certain feature, say a large nose.

What tells those cells to form that exact nose and then stop at certain stages? Because initially they’re not forming the nose you’ll have as an adult, but the baby’s nose that will grow into that large nose.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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