stem cells in their environment

Of non-existent black holes and pickled stem cells

12 February 2014
By Kif Liakath-Ali

Physics and Biology were the media darlings last week. Earlier, one of my favourite physicists Professor Stephen Hawking claimed through his paper that there are no black holes! Well... later I realised he actually insisted on using a different name for it - "Metastable bound states of the gravitational field"!!! I know I am not meant to explore the nature of black holes. Nevertheless, while I was contemplating over the yes-or-no event horizon, there came a 'hey-remember-you-are-a-biologist' kind of reminder about how articles in Nature make a sensation. I first read about it from a random free newspaper on London Tube. Now you know how quickly it hit the media!

By now, most of the people who work in research fields related to stem cells should be aware of these two articles, so I'm not going to go into much detail. Apparently, Haruko Obokata and Charles Vacanti's team have done an amazing job in showing a new method to derive iPS-like cells (as Yamanaka calls it). The method involves exposing the cells to stress, like comfortable acidic pH; and the rest of the story is well known.

Now, the lesson for me from these two articles is not only how I can reprogram cells in a new way, but also how an alternative thinking can lead to breakthrough discoveries. Most of the scientists who are plunged into narrow topics find that it restricts their thinking outside the lab. As the lead author says, the original idea occurred to her when she thought about how plants regenerate their missing parts when they get chopped off. Obviously plants do not need to overexpress Yamanaka factor-like factors or any genetic manipulation to regenerate. In plants, the regeneration is mostly induced by stress. Inspired by this, the authors tried various stress applications including squeezing the cells through narrow capillary pipettes (of course, without killing them) to see if it could make the cells do something different – and the ingenious idea of dipping cells in low pH worked out! Inspiration is all around us.  We need to keep our eyes open a bit wider.

Lateral thinking is vital in biology, and science in general, I say!

I first posted this blog entry on 'the Node' – you can read some of the comments posted there – and please feel free to start your own discussion here on our Wattlab blog!

Further reading

•  S. W. Hawking (2014) Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes. Preprint at

•  Obokata et al., (2014) Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature. 505, 641–647.

•  Obokata et al., (2014) Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency. Nature. 505, 676–680.

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