Stem Cell

Using barcodes to trace cell development

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

How do the multiple different cell types in the blood develop? Scientists have been pursuing this question for a long time. According to the classical model, different developmental lines branch out like in a tree. The tree trunk is composed of stem cells and the branches are made up of various types of progenitor cells that can give rise to a number of distinct cell types. Then it further branches off into the specialized blood cells, i.e., red blood cells, blood platelets and various types of white blood cells that are part of the immune system. In recent years, however, doubts about this model have arisen.

Hans-Reimer Rodewald, a scientist at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) in Heidelberg, and his co-workers wanted to capture the dynamic events in blood cell formation instead of merely taking snapshots. In close collaboration with a research team led by systems biologist Thomas Höfer, the scientists have developed a new technology that enables them to precisely follow the developmental tracks of cells. To this end, they label stem cells with a kind of genetic barcode in order to be able to clearly identify their offspring later.

“Genetic barcodes have been developed and applied before, but they were based on methods that can also change cellular properties,” Rodewald said. “Our barcodes are different: They can be induced tissue-specifically and directly in the genome of…