How Stem Cells Work

Adult Stem Cells

stem cell hemopoietic cells
HowStuffWorks / Lee Dempsey

You can think of adult stem cells as our built-in repair kits, regenerating cells damaged by disease, injury and everyday wear and tear. These undifferentiated cells reside among other differentiated cells in a tissue or organ; they divide and become specialized to repair or replace the surrounding differentiated cells. A common example of adult stem cells is hemopoietic stem cells, which are found in red bone marrow. These stem cells differentiate into various blood cells (red blood cells, lymphocytes, platelets-- see How Blood Works for more information). For example, red blood cells are not capable of reproducing and survive for about 28 days. To replace worn-out red blood cells, hemopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow divide and differentiate into new red blood cells.

Bone marrow also contains a second type of adult stem cell known as a stromal or mesenchymal stem cell. Stromal stem cells become bone, cartilage, fat and connective tissues found in bone. Adult stem cells have also been found in many other tissues such as the brain, skeletal muscle, blood vessels, skin, liver, teeth and the heart. Regardless of the source, adult stem cells are multipotent - they can develop into a limited number of cell types.


Although adult stem cells exist in many tissues, their numbers are small, perhaps one adult stem cell for every 100,000 surrounding cells. These stem cells look like the surrounding cells, so it's difficult to tell them apart. But researchers have developed an interesting way to identify them by "lighting them up." All cells have unique proteins on their surface called receptors. Receptors bind chemical messages from other cells as part of cell-to-cell communication. Researchers use these receptors -- or markers -- to identify and isolate adult stem cells by "tagging" the chemical messages that bind to those specific receptors on the stem cell with fluorescent molecules. Once the fluorescent chemical message binds to the receptor on the surface of the stem cell, the stem cell will "light up" under fluorescent light. The "lighted" stem cell can then be identified and isolated.

Like embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells can be grown in culture to establish stem cell lines.

Adult stem cells were once believed to be more limited than embryonic stem cells, only giving rise to the same type of tissue from which they originated. But new research suggests that adult stem cells may have the potential to generate other types of cells, as well. For example, liver cells may be coaxed to produce insulin, which is normally made by the pancreas. This capability is known as plasticity or transdifferentiation

It used to be believed that there were only two types of stem cells -- embryonic and adult -- but there's another kid on the stem cell block. Keep reading to learn about this "new" type: the induced pluripotent stem cell.