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Concept: Inner cell mass


Aim: To develop a clinically applicable MRI technique for tracking stem cells in matrix-associated stem-cell implants, using the US FDA-approved iron supplement ferumoxytol. Materials & methods: Ferumoxytol-labeling of adipose-derived stem cells (ADSCs) was optimized in vitro. A total of 11 rats with osteochondral defects of both femurs were implanted with ferumoxytol- or ferumoxides-labeled or unlabeled ADSCs, and underwent MRI up to 4 weeks post matrix-associated stem-cell implant. The signal-to-noise ratio of different matrix-associated stem-cell implant was compared with t-tests and correlated with histopathology. Results: An incubation concentration of 500 µg iron/ml ferumoxytol and 10 µg/ml protamine sulfate led to significant cellular iron uptake, T2 signal effects and unimpaired ADSC viability. In vivo, ferumoxytol- and ferumoxides-labeled ADSCs demonstrated significantly lower signal-to-noise ratio values compared with unlabeled controls (p < 0.01). Histopathology confirmed engraftment of labeled ADSCs, with slow dilution of the iron label over time. Conclusion: Ferumoxytol can be used for in vivo tracking of stem cells with MRI. Original submitted 28 February 2012; Revised submitted 8 November 2012.

Concepts: Iron, Cell division, Stem cell, In vivo, In vitro, Inner cell mass, Signal-to-noise ratio, Leukemia inhibitory factor


Interspecies blastocyst complementation enables organ-specific enrichment of xenogenic pluripotent stem cell (PSC) derivatives. Here, we establish a versatile blastocyst complementation platform based on CRISPR-Cas9-mediated zygote genome editing and show enrichment of rat PSC-derivatives in several tissues of gene-edited organogenesis-disabled mice. Besides gaining insights into species evolution, embryogenesis, and human disease, interspecies blastocyst complementation might allow human organ generation in animals whose organ size, anatomy, and physiology are closer to humans. To date, however, whether human PSCs (hPSCs) can contribute to chimera formation in non-rodent species remains unknown. We systematically evaluate the chimeric competency of several types of hPSCs using a more diversified clade of mammals, the ungulates. We find that naïve hPSCs robustly engraft in both pig and cattle pre-implantation blastocysts but show limited contribution to post-implantation pig embryos. Instead, an intermediate hPSC type exhibits higher degree of chimerism and is able to generate differentiated progenies in post-implantation pig embryos.

Concepts: Cell, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Mammal, Human anatomy, Induced pluripotent stem cell, Pluripotency, Inner cell mass


Studies using animal models demonstrated the importance of autocrine/paracrine factors secreted by preimplantation embryos and reproductive tracts for embryonic development and implantation. Although in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer (IVF-ET) is an established procedure, there is no evidence that present culture conditions are optimal for human early embryonic development. In this study, key polypeptide ligands known to be important for early embryonic development in animal models were tested for their ability to improve human early embryo development and blastocyst outgrowth in vitro. We confirmed the expression of key ligand/receptor pairs in cleavage embryos derived from discarded human tri-pronuclear zygotes and in human endometrium. Combined treatment with key embryonic growth factors (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, colony-stimulating factor, epidermal growth factor, granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor, insulin-like growth factor-1, glial cell-line derived neurotrophic factor, and artemin) in serum-free media promoted >2.5-fold the development of tri-pronuclear zygotes to blastocysts. For normally fertilized embryos, day 3 surplus embryos cultured individually with the key growth factors showed >3-fold increases in the development of 6-8 cell stage embryos to blastocysts and >7-fold increase in the proportion of high quality blastocysts based on Gardner’s criteria. Growth factor treatment also led to a 2-fold promotion of blastocyst outgrowth in vitro when day 7 surplus hatching blastocysts were used. When failed-to-be-fertilized oocytes were used to perform somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) using fibroblasts as donor karyoplasts, inclusion of growth factors increased the progression of reconstructed SCNT embryos to >4-cell stage embryos. Growth factor supplementation of serum-free cultures could promote optimal early embryonic development and implantation in IVF-ET and SCNT procedures. This approach is valuable for infertility treatment and future derivation of patient-specific embryonic stem cells.

Concepts: Embryo, Epidermal growth factor, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Embryogenesis, Nerve growth factor, Inner cell mass, Blastocyst


Implantation of the blastocyst is a developmental milestone in mammalian embryonic development. At this time, a coordinated program of lineage diversification, cell-fate specification, and morphogenetic movements establishes the generation of extra-embryonic tissues and the embryo proper, and determines the conditions for successful pregnancy and gastrulation. Despite its basic and clinical importance, this process remains mysterious in humans. Here we report the use of a novel in vitro system to study the post-implantation development of the human embryo. We unveil the self-organizing abilities and autonomy of in vitro attached human embryos. We find human-specific molecular signatures of early cell lineage, timing, and architecture. Embryos display key landmarks of normal development, including epiblast expansion, lineage segregation, bi-laminar disc formation, amniotic and yolk sac cavitation, and trophoblast diversification. Our findings highlight the species-specificity of these developmental events and provide a new understanding of early human embryonic development beyond the blastocyst stage. In addition, our study establishes a new model system relevant to early human pregnancy loss. Finally, our work will also assist in the rational design of differentiation protocols of human embryonic stem cells to specific cell types for disease modelling and cell replacement therapy.

Concepts: Pregnancy, Embryo, Developmental biology, Cellular differentiation, Embryonic stem cell, Embryology, Implantation, Inner cell mass


Mouse studies have been instrumental in forming our current understanding of early cell-lineage decisions; however, similar insights into the early human development are severely limited. Here, we present a comprehensive transcriptional map of human embryo development, including the sequenced transcriptomes of 1,529 individual cells from 88 human preimplantation embryos. These data show that cells undergo an intermediate state of co-expression of lineage-specific genes, followed by a concurrent establishment of the trophectoderm, epiblast, and primitive endoderm lineages, which coincide with blastocyst formation. Female cells of all three lineages achieve dosage compensation of X chromosome RNA levels prior to implantation. However, in contrast to the mouse, XIST is transcribed from both alleles throughout the progression of this expression dampening, and X chromosome genes maintain biallelic expression while dosage compensation proceeds. We envision broad utility of this transcriptional atlas in future studies on human development as well as in stem cell research.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Cell, Embryo, Developmental biology, Inner cell mass


Conventional generation of stem cells from human blastocysts produces a developmentally advanced, or primed, stage of pluripotency. In vitro resetting to a more naive phenotype has been reported. However, whether the reset culture conditions of selective kinase inhibition can enable capture of naive epiblast cells directly from the embryo has not been determined. Here, we show that in these specific conditions individual inner cell mass cells grow into colonies that may then be expanded over multiple passages while retaining a diploid karyotype and naive properties. The cells express hallmark naive pluripotency factors and additionally display features of mitochondrial respiration, global gene expression, and genome-wide hypomethylation distinct from primed cells. They transition through primed pluripotency into somatic lineage differentiation. Collectively these attributes suggest classification as human naive embryonic stem cells. Human counterparts of canonical mouse embryonic stem cells would argue for conservation in the phased progression of pluripotency in mammals.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Cell, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Cell biology, Embryonic stem cell, Inner cell mass


Development of the asymmetric amniotic sac-with the embryonic disc and amniotic ectoderm occupying opposite poles-is a vital milestone during human embryo implantation. Although essential to embryogenesis and pregnancy, amniotic sac development in humans remains poorly understood. Here, we report a human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC)-based model, termed the post-implantation amniotic sac embryoid (PASE), that recapitulates multiple post-implantation embryogenic events centered around amniotic sac development. Without maternal or extraembryonic tissues, the PASE self-organizes into an epithelial cyst with an asymmetric amniotic ectoderm-epiblast pattern that resembles the human amniotic sac. Upon further development, the PASE initiates a process that resembles posterior primitive streak development in a SNAI1-dependent manner. Furthermore, we observe asymmetric BMP-SMAD signaling concurrent with PASE development, and establish that BMP-SMAD activation/inhibition modulates stable PASE development. This study reveals a previously unrecognized fate potential of human pluripotent stem cells and provides a platform for advancing human embryology.Early in human embryonic development, it is unclear how amniotic sac formation is regulated. Here, the authors use a human pluripotent stem cell-based model, termed the post-implantation amniotic sac embryoid, to recapitulate early embryogenic events of human amniotic sac development.

Concepts: Embryo, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Stem cells, Embryology, Induced pluripotent stem cell, Pluripotency, Inner cell mass


The epiblast (EPI) and the primitive endoderm (PE), which constitute foundations for the future embryo body and yolk sac, build respectively deep and surface layers of the inner cell mass (ICM) of the blastocyst. Before reaching their target localization within the ICM, the PE and EPI precursor cells, which display distinct lineage-specific markers, are intermingled randomly. Since the ICM cells are produced in two successive rounds of asymmetric divisions at the 8→16 (primary inner cells) and 16→32 cell stage (secondary inner cells) it has been suggested that the fate of inner cells (decision to become EPI or PE) may depend on the time of their origin. Our method of dual labeling of embryos allowed us to distinguish between primary and secondary inner cells contributing ultimately to ICM. Our results show that the presence of two generations of inner cells in the 32-cell stage embryo is the source of heterogeneity within the ICM. We found some bias concerning the level of Fgf4 and Fgfr2 expression between primary and secondary inner cells, resulting from the distinct number of cells expressing these genes. Analysis of experimental aggregates constructed using different ratios of inner cells surrounded by outer cells revealed that the fate of cells does not depend exclusively on the timing of their generation, but also on the number of cells generated in each wave of asymmetric division. Taking together, the observed regulatory mechanism adjusting the proportion of outer to inner cells within the embryo may be mediated by FGF signaling.

Concepts: Gene, Embryo, Embryology, Implantation, Embryogenesis, Inner cell mass, Gastrulation, Hypoblast


Cloning animals by nuclear transfer provides the opportunity to preserve endangered mammalian species. However, there are risks associated with the collection of donor cells from the body such as accidental injury to or death of the animal. Here, we report the production of cloned mice from urine-derived cells collected noninvasively. Most of the urine-derived cells survived and were available as donors for nuclear transfer without any pretreatment. After nuclear transfer, 38-77% of the reconstructed embryos developed to the morula/blastocyst, in which the cell numbers in the inner cell mass and trophectoderm were similar to those of controls. Male and female cloned mice were delivered from cloned embryos transferred to recipient females, and these cloned animals grew to adulthood and delivered pups naturally when mated with each other. The results suggest that these cloned mice had normal fertility. In additional experiments, 26 nuclear transfer embryonic stem cell lines were established from 108 cloned blastocysts derived from four mouse strains including inbreds and F1 hybrids with relatively high success rates. Thus, cells derived from urine, which can be collected noninvasively, may be used in the rescue of endangered mammalian species by using nuclear transfer without causing injury to the animal.

Concepts: Embryo, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Cell biology, Animal, Embryonic stem cell, Cloning, Inner cell mass


Cultured pluripotent stem cells are a cornerstone of regenerative medicine owing to their ability to give rise to all cell types of the body. Although pluripotent stem cells can be propagated indefinitely in vitro, pluripotency is paradoxically a transient state in vivo, lasting 2-3 days around the time of blastocyst implantation. The exception to this rule is embryonic diapause, a reversible state of suspended development triggered by unfavourable conditions. Diapause is a physiological reproductive strategy widely employed across the animal kingdom, including in mammals, but its regulation remains poorly understood. Here we report that the partial inhibition of mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR), a major nutrient sensor and promoter of growth, induces reversible pausing of mouse blastocyst development and allows their prolonged culture ex vivo. Paused blastocysts remain pluripotent and competent-able to give rise to embryonic stem (ES) cells and live, fertile mice. We show that both naturally diapaused blastocysts in vivo and paused blastocysts ex vivo display pronounced reductions in mTOR activity, translation, histone modifications associated with gene activity and transcription. Pausing can be induced directly in cultured ES cells and sustained for weeks without appreciable cell death or deviations from cell cycle distributions. We show that paused ES cells display a remarkable global suppression of transcription, maintain a gene expression signature of diapaused blastocysts and remain pluripotent. These results uncover a new pluripotent stem cell state corresponding to the epiblast of the diapaused blastocyst and indicate that mTOR regulates developmental timing at the peri-implantation stage. Our findings have implications in the fields of assisted reproduction, regenerative medicine, cancer, metabolic disorders and ageing.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Developmental biology, Stem cell, Cell biology, Induced pluripotent stem cell, Pluripotency, Inner cell mass