Scientists at the Carnegie Institution have identified a gene in fruit flies, named scrawny, that appears to be a key factor in keeping a variety of stem cells in their undifferentiated state.
While the scrawny gene has so far only been identified in fruit flies, very similar genes that may carry out the same function are known to be present in all multicellular organisms including humans, according to the researchers.
The team found that scrawny modifies a chromosomal protein histone H2B that is used by cells to package DNA into chromosomes. By controlling the proteins that wrap the genes, scrawny can silence genes that would otherwise cause a generalized cell to differentiate into a specific type of cell.
The scientists report that they observed the effects of scrawny on every major type of stem cell found in fruit flies. In the experiments, mutant flies without functioning copies of the scrawny prematurely lost their stem cells in reproductive tissue, skin, and intestinal tissue.
The results will be published in the January 9 edition of Science.