One of the great things about stem cells is how they seem to do just about anything. These days, stem cells have more Apps than an iPad, and in the new issue of Science we find one more: using stem cells to screen for “epigenetic disruptors”.
The proposed idea is to use the built-in developmental plasticity of stem cells, when epigenetic change is most likely, to create a model for looking at the effects of epigenetic alterations, or “epimutations”. By watching for changes at certain loci during normal development, and then comparing that response after treatment with potential epigenetic disruptors, like chemical or environmental compounds, you can build a reporter system to find agents that cause epigenetic damage.
Authors Myriam Hemberger (The Barbraham Institute, UK) and Roger Pedersen (University of Cambridge, UK) point out that there are several outstanding questions that would need to be hashed out in order to get a tool like this working like:
- What is the normal epigenetic variability in stem cells, tissues and organisms, and how can you create a “baseline”?
- What stem cell type will work the best (enough plasticity to see change but without high background fluctuations)?
- Which epigenetic marks should be screened; at what scale?
- How much epigenetic disruption is enough to matter?
We know these answers are probably quite a ways off, but in the meantime we hope the questions really have your wheels turning!
Don’t get disrupted before you get to the article at Science, October 2010.