Stem Cells For Beginners: What Are Stem Cells? July 17, 2007Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Stem Cells, Think About It.
You’re going to be seeing a lot more info on stem cells in the weird science blog. Why? Partly because it’s an area I’m really excited about, so my passion and bias on the subject means it’s going to be a common source of banter here on the blog. Another reason is because it’s a hot topic amongst scientists. Where there are stem cells, there’s usually heaps of potential to treat disease and also a lot of controversy and political arguments.
One thing I’ve found is that it’s a topic many adults, teens and kids just don’t get. It’s confusing. It’s mind boggling. It’s complicated. Plus, people don’t understand why they even need to know anything about stem cells. I want to give what I hope is an easy primer on stem cells, so that you can get a basic grasp of what all this yapping and debating is about. You’ll see that scientists aren’t totally off their rockers for getting excited about a bunch of cells.
First, lets compare it to other cells. You probably already know that cells make up living organisms. What makes stem cells so special though? Well, they’ve got some unique and very fabulous properties that let them do nifty stuff.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells. Think about your heart. It has specialized cells that get it beating. But these cells and all the other specialized cells in your body are created from unspecialized cells. Those are stem cells!
Specialized Isn’t Always Better
But isn’t something specialized better, you might ask? Not necessarily. This brings us to another important feature of stem cells. Because a stem cell is unspecialized, it can give rise to loads of specialized cells like your heart cell. It has all this potential to become almost anything! A heart cell has a specialized function and so it doesn’t give rise to a brain cell. A stem cell, however, can give rise to both heart and brain cells. Here’s a fancy word you can impress your parents and friends with-differentiation. When a stem cell develops into a specialized cell like that heart cell, it differentiates. So, we’d say that a stem cell differentiated into a heart cell.
Even More Special
Hold up! One more cool thing about stem cells! Stem cells can proliferate. Say what? This is one of those fancy words that just means it can multiply. Stem cells can multiply over and over again while still remaining unspecialized. Or, under the right conditions, they can be coaxed to differentiate into those specialized cells I mentioned earlier.
So, stem cells are obviously unique because they don’t have a specialized function and they can create copies of themselves or develop into those specialized cells that do stuff like make your heart beat or let your brain send messages. So what? What’s all that got to do with diseases? On top of that, what’s with all the controversy? These answers I’m saving for my next blog entry on stem cells. In the meantime, you can see a post I’ve done on stem cells and hair here. You can also see the scienceblogs website to read about the very funny email I received from a balding parent whose daughter read that post.