Differentiation from visibly undifferentiated precursor cells occurs during embryonic development, during metamorphosis of larval forms, and following the separation of parts in asexual reproduction. It also takes place in adult organisms during the renewal of tissues and the regeneration of missing parts. Thus, cell differentiation is an essential and ongoing process at all stages of life.
The visible differentiation of cells is only the last of a progressive sequence of states. In each state, the cell becomes increasingly committed toward one type of cell into which it can develop. States of commitment are sometimes described as “specification” to represent a reversible type of commitment and as “determination” to represent an irreversible commitment. Although states of specification and determination both represent differential gene activity, the properties of embryonic cells are not necessarily the same as those of fully differentiated cells. In particular, cells in specification states are usually not stable over prolonged periods of time.
Two mechanisms bring about altered commitments in the different regions of the early embryo: cytoplasmic localization and induction. Cytoplasmic localization is evident in the earliest stages of development of the embryo. During this time, the embryo divides without growth, undergoing cleavage divisions that produce separate cells called blastomeres. Each blastomere inherits a certain region of the original egg cytoplasm, which may contain one or more regulatory substances called cytoplasmic determinants. When the embryo has become a solid mass of blastomeres (called a morula), it generally consists of two or more differently committed cell populations—a result of the blastomeres having incorporated different cytoplasmic determinants. Cytoplasmic determinants may consist of mRNA or protein in a particular state of activation. An example of the influence of a cytoplasmic determinant is a receptor called Toll, located in the membranes of Drosophila (fruit fly) eggs. Activation of Toll ensures that the blastomeres will develop into ventral (underside) structures, while blastomeres containing inactive Toll will produce cells that will develop into dorsal (back) structures.
In induction, the second mechanism of commitment, a substance secreted by one group of cells alters the development of another group. In early development, induction is usually instructive; that is, the tissue assumes a different state of commitment in the presence of the signal than it would in the absence of the signal. Inductive signals often take the form of concentration gradients of substances that evoke a number of different responses at different concentrations. This leads to the formation of a sequence of groups of cells, each in a different state of specification. For example, in Xenopus (clawed frog) the early embryo contains a signaling centre called the organizer that secretes inhibitors of bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs), leading to a ventral-to-dorsal (belly-to-back) gradient of BMP activity. The activity of BMP in the ventral region of the embryo suppresses the expression of transcription factors involved in the formation of the central nervous system and segmented muscles. Suppression ensures that these structures are formed only on the dorsal side, where there is decreased activity of BMP.
The final stage of differentiation often involves the formation of several types of differentiated cells from one precursor or stem cell population. Terminal differentiation occurs not only in embryonic development but also in many tissues in postnatal life. Control of this process depends on a system of lateral inhibition in which cells that are differentiating along a particular pathway send out signals that repress similar differentiation by their neighbours. For example, in the developing central nervous system of vertebrates, neurons arise from a simple tube of neuroepithelium, the cells of which possess a surface receptor called Notch. These cells also possess another cell surface molecule called Delta that can bind to and activate Notch on adjacent cells. Activation of Notch initiates a cascade of intracellular events that results in suppression of Delta production and suppression of neuronal differentiation. This means that the neuroepithelium generates only a few cells with high expression of Delta surrounded by a larger number of cells with low expression of Delta. High Delta production and low Notch activation makes the cells develop into neurons. Low Delta production and high Notch activation makes the cells remain as precursor cells or become glial (supporting) cells. A similar mechanism is known to produce the endocrine cells of the pancreas and the goblet cells of the intestinal epithelium. Such lateral inhibition systems work because cells in a population are never quite identical to begin with. There are always small differences, such as in the number of Delta molecules displayed on the cell surface. The mechanism of lateral inhibition amplifies these small differences, using them to bring about differential gene expression that leads to stable and persistent states of cell differentiation.