1103 Chapter 3. The Cellular Level of Organization

3.6 Cellular Differentiation

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define cell specialization and describe its importance to an organism
  • Describe the importance of cellular differentiation in the growth of a human body from a fertilized egg

How does a complex organism such as a human develop from a single cell—a fertilized egg—into the vast array of cell types such as nerve cells, muscle cells, and epithelial cells that characterize the adult? Throughout development and adulthood, the process of cellular differentiation leads cells to assume their final morphology and physiology. Differentiation is the process by which unspecialized cells become specialized to carry out distinct functions.

Stem Cells

A stem cell is an unspecialized cell that can divide without limit as needed and can, under specific conditions, differentiate into specialized cells (Figure 3). Stem cells are divided into several categories according to their potential to differentiate.

The first embryonic cells that arise from the division of the zygote are the ultimate stem cells; these stems cells are described as totipotent because they have the potential to differentiate into any of the cells needed to enable an organism to grow and develop.

The embryonic cells that develop from totipotent stem cells and are precursors to the fundamental tissue layers of the embryo are classified as pluripotent. A pluripotent stem cell is one that has the potential to differentiate into any type of human tissue but cannot support the full development of an organism. These cells then become slightly more specialized, and are referred to as multipotent cells.

A multipotent stem cell has the potential to differentiate into different types of cells within a given cell lineage or small number of lineages, such as a red blood cell or white blood cell.

Finally, multipotent cells can become further specialized oligopotent cells. An oligopotent stem cell is limited to becoming one of a few different cell types. In contrast, a unipotent cell is fully specialized and can only reproduce to generate more of its own specific cell type.

Stem cells are unique in that they can also continually divide and regenerate new stem cells instead of further specializing. There are different stem cells present at different stages of a human’s life. They include the embryonic stem cells of the embryo, fetal stem cells of the fetus, and adult stem cells in the adult. One type of adult stem cell is the epithelial stem cell, which gives rise to the keratinocytes in the multiple layers of epithelial cells in the epidermis of skin. Adult bone marrow has three distinct types of stem cells: hematopoietic stem cells, which give rise to red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets (Figure 1); endothelial stem cells, which give rise to the endothelial cell types that line blood and lymph vessels; and mesenchymal stem cells, which give rise to the different types of muscle cells.

This flowchart shows the differentiation of a hemocytoblast, a stem cell, into the different types of cells found in blood.
Figure 1. Hematopoiesis. The process of hematopoiesis involves the differentiation of multipotent cells into blood and immune cells. The multipotent hematopoietic stem cells give rise to many different cell types, including the cells of the immune system and red blood cells.

Mature Cells

The morphology (structure) of a mature cell is closely related to the function it is specialized to serve.  Muscle fibers for example are far removed in structure and function from the zygote that they ultimately arose from: they are long, slender structures that are well-suited to contracting to produce macroscopic movements over relatively long distances.  Some neurons (nerve cells) are exceptionally long and slender in shape, again to act over relatively long distances, although in this case their function is to transmit information rather than move body structures directly.  Erythrocytes (red blood cells) are used to transport oxygen in the blood; their tiny size and lack of a nucleus make them well-suited to squeezing through the smallest of capillaries, and their lack of mitochondria mean they do not themselves use up the oxygen they are supposed to be delivering to other cells.  Leucocytes (white blood cells) on the other hand are typically noticeably larger than erythrocytes, and do have mitochondria.  The large size of macrophages, for example, means they are capable of physically engulfing relatively large particles or whole cells such as bacteria by phagocytosis, and their mitochondria allow them access to the chemical energy required to move themselves through body tissues towards invading pathogens.


When a cell differentiates (becomes more specialized), it may undertake major changes in its size, shape, metabolic activity, and overall function. Because all cells in the body, beginning with the fertilized egg, contain the same DNA, how do the different cell types come to be so different? The answer is analogous to a movie script. The different actors in a movie all read from the same script, however, they are each only reading their own part of the script. Similarly, all cells contain the same full complement of DNA, but each type of cell only “reads” the portions of DNA that are relevant to its own function. In biology, this is referred to as the unique genetic expression of each cell.

In order for a cell to differentiate into its specialized form and function, it need only manipulate those genes (and thus those proteins) that will be expressed, and not those that will remain silent. The primary mechanism by which genes are turned “on” or “off” is through transcription factors. A transcription factor is one of a class of proteins that bind to specific genes on the DNA molecule and either promote or inhibit their transcription (Figure 2).

This diagram shows transcription factors and then RNA polymerase binding to a stretch of RNA to initiate transcription.
Figure 2. Transcription Factors Regulate Gene Expression. While each body cell contains the organism’s entire genome, different cells regulate gene expression with the use of various transcription factors. Transcription factors are proteins that affect the binding of RNA polymerase to a particular gene on the DNA molecule.
This flow chart shows the differentiation of stem cells into different cell types. The top layer shows a totipotent stem cell, which becomes a pluripotent stem cell and then a multipotent stem cell. A multipotent stem cell can then differentiate into different cell types.
Figure 3. Stem Cells. The capacity of stem cells to differentiate into specialized cells make them potentially valuable in therapeutic applications designed to replace damaged cells of different body tissues.

In contrast, adult stem cells isolated from a patient are not seen as foreign by the body, but they have a limited range of differentiation. Some individuals bank the cord blood or deciduous teeth of their child, storing away those sources of stem cells for future use, should their child need it. Induced pluripotent stem cells are considered a promising advance in the field because using them avoids the legal, ethical, and immunological pitfalls of embryonic stem cells.

Watch this amoeba sisters video to learn more about how cells become specialized!
Watch this amoeba sisters video for some examples of specialized cells!


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Douglas College Human Anatomy and Physiology I (1st ed.) Copyright © 1999-2016 by Rice University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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