The Niche

Induced pluripotent stem cells display near-mythic flexibility

Induced pluripotent stem cells may be capable of forming any imaginable creature, at least in miniature form. Short of funds and unable to buy fibroblast growth factor (FGF) to study her induced pluripotent stem cells, Sheila Nagin of Yount University decided to try something desperate. A herpetologist colleague had been studying the development of scales, and she added some of his reagents to the mix. To her surprise, the cells grew into what appeared, morphologically, to be embryonic stem cells. When she tried to assessing the cells by injecting them into an immunecompromised mouse, the cells grew, not into the expected teratomas, but into small furry lizards. Intrigued, Nagin began new combinations: the shafts of feathers, the eyes of newts, pulverized rhinocerous horn. By testing out various combinations, she was able to create miniature versions of unicorns and griffins. Placing the cells in an immunocompromised cat produced a creature very much like a sphinx.

Further work needs to be done to understand how well the miniature creatures actually mimic their full-size counterparts, says Allen Funt, of Candida College. “The problem is that since these are fictional creatures, we have no ‘gold-standard’ to compare them to.”

Meanwhile, Nagin thinks she may have found a way to satisfy the critics. A combination of match-heads and butterfly wings, she believes, could the factors necessary to produce dragons. “I figure if they breathe fire, everyone will believe they’re the real thing.”

Meanwhile, scores of other researchers are throwing aside FGF in favor of fairy tales. “It just goes to show that we really have no idea how we can make reprogramming work,” says New Carolina University’s Joe King.

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