Pluripotent stem cells are capable of differentiating into all body tissues and are able to renew themselves through unlimited proliferation. Pluripotent stem cells were first derived by growing the inner cell mass (ICM) of mouse embryos in tissue culture. The functional capacity of such mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) and the tissues generated by their differentiation has traditionally been assayed by formation of chimeras. This was achieved by introducing mESCs to an early mouse embryo and then transferring the embryo to the uterus of a foster female for gestation and birth. Such studies demonstrated the pluripotency of mESCs, as the stem cells contributed to all organs and tissues, including the germline. However, the method used to determine the differentiative capacity of human pluripotent stem cells tells nothing whatsoever about the functional capacity of the tissues derived from them. Consequently, there is hardly any information available to date about the functional capacities of cells or tissues derived from human pluripotent stem cells. For example, chimera studies show not only that mESCs are capable of fully normal function in all body tissues but also that growing mESCs in vitro does not increase the risk of abnormal growth (i.e., tumors) or developmental instability once they are returned to a developing embryo. This insight in not informative about the comparable risks of transplanting tissues derived from human ESCs, because these have recently been shown to have a substantially different biological nature from mESCs. Such information requires development of a novel assay for functional capacities of pluripotent stem cells. The proposed studies involve pluripotent mouse and human stem cells that have been genetically altered to incorporate transgenes encoding a constitutively expressed green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter gene as well as a conditionally expressed red fluorescent protein (RFP) reporter gene. The pluripotent stem cells will be induced to differentiate into mesoderm or neuroectoderm, and these differentiated progeny will be transplanted to the mesodermal or neuroectodermal layers of post-implantation mouse embryos to test their functional capacity in a tissue or organ context. Embryos will then be cultured for 1 to 3 days in rotating tubes until early organs rudiments form. All descendants of the injected cells will be GFP-labeled;cells that differentiate into the specific target tissue wil be RFP labeled. The molecular and physiological properties of labeled cells will indicate whether the stem cell-derived differentiated cells share key features that confirm their normality. A similr approach will be used to determine the impact of key environmental toxicants, specifically C6H6 and MeHg, which are developmental toxicants for the blood and nervous systems, respectively.
The studies proposed here will provide important novel insights into the capacity of pluripotent stem cell-derived progeny for integration and function in normal tissue and developmental contexts. Without this information, scientists cannot predict whether progeny of pluripotent stem cells can be safely used for cell-based therapies, or whether they are valid models for understanding how environmental toxins affect development.