School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist

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Cell Differentiation

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  • DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid is the information "blue-print" of the cell. It is a nucleic acid and is made from building blocks called nucleotides. This genetic information is passed from parent to child... more
  • Differentiation: when a cell chooses a particular genetically determined path that causes it to perform only a few specialized tasks... more
  • Egg: a female gamete, which keeps all the parts of a cell after fusing with a sperm.
  • Gamete: specialized cells found in your reproductive organs that have half the amount of DNA of somatic cells. These cells combine to make a fertilized egg... more
  • Gene: a region of DNA where a specific set of instructions for one trait is kept. We get some of our genes from our mother and some from our father... more
  • Nucleus: where DNA stays in the cell, plural is nuclei.
  • Organism: a living thing that can be small like bacteria or large like an elephant.
  • Somatic cells: the cells in your body, except for gametes. Soma is Latin for body.
  • Sperm: a male gamete, which only transfers its DNA to the egg... more

Differentiation is Different cell differentiation

In order for cells to become whole organisms, they must divide and differentiate. Cells divide all the time. That means that just one cell, a fertilized egg, is able to become the trillions of cells that make up your body, just by dividing. Those trillions of cells are not all the same though.

Just a little while after you started out as a fertilized egg, your cells started performing specific tasks, even started to look different because of that. Differentiation means that one cell performs a different function than another cell, depending on where it is in your body.

The example of this is your lung cells and your brain cells. The cells in your lung do a different job than the cells in your brain. Your lung cells work on exchanging oxygen from the environment with carbon dioxide in your system, to keep you alive. Your brain cells send and receive signals throughout your body. All the cells contain the same genetic material and all of them are from one original cell that started as a fertilized egg, but they look different and act different from one another. This is differentiation.

Scientists still do not understand perfectly why cells in the same organism decide to differentiate. Cells were kept in small dishes and would divide for a while, but then would stop and die. What was special about a body that it had cells that would differentiate?

Scientists thought that new, fresh cells would differentiate, like a fertilized egg would. Sure enough, a fertilized egg will begin to divide and differentiate in a dish, without much help. In fact, would not stop dividing and differentiating if the environment was nice enough. When the nucleus of another cell was put into an egg cell, it would still act like a fertilized egg and keep dividing and differentiating.

Human nerve stem cells

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Human nerve stem cells

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.