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What is the Purpose of Cell Differentiation?

J.M. Densing
J.M. Densing

The purpose of cell differentiation is to provide organisms with the many different types of specialized cells needed to perform specific functions. Organisms start from a single cell that contains all the required genetic information, or instructions, which reproduces into many stem cells with the potential to become any type of specialized cell. First, it is decided which genetic information will be expressed, or carried out, thereby indicating the type of cell that is to be formed. Then, through differentiation, those instructions are carried out and specialized cells are formed.

The human body has about 200 different types of specialized cells that perform various functions and make up the tissues and organs of the body. One of the properties of a stem cell is that it is unspecialized — it lacks the ability to perform any of the specific functions of the body. Its primary function is to create specialized cells, and it contains the genetic information needed to form any type of cell, like a blood cell or a nerve cell. The process of forming these specialized cells is called cell differentiation.

A diagram of cell differentiation.
A diagram of cell differentiation.

In the earliest stages of development of a human embryo, the differentiation occurs depending on the location of the stem cells. For example, those on the outer layer differentiate to form skin cells. During the differentiation process, cells develop specific shapes, structures, and characteristics needed for performing particular functions in the body.

Unlike other stem cells, adult stem cells can be limited to forming only certain categories of cells.
Unlike other stem cells, adult stem cells can be limited to forming only certain categories of cells.

The process usually consists of several steps, with the cell becoming more specialized at each. These steps are triggered by signals that scientists do not yet understand, but it is thought that some of the signals come from the environment and from nearby cells. Other signals are internal and come from the genetic material, or DNA, inside the cell. Once the cell is differentiated, it develops epigenetic markers that restrict what DNA information can be expressed; these are passed on when the cell reproduces so that future daughter cells will also be specialized.

In adults, cell differentiation also occurs for the same purpose. Adult stem cells also need to form the specialized cells needed to perform vital functions. Adult stem cells, however, can be limited to forming certain categories of cells; these limits are referred to as cell potency. Some, called totipotent or pluripotent, have the potential to form any kind of specialized cell. Others, called multipotent, are more limited. For example, the blood forming adult stem cells in bone marrow can only generate different types of blood cells.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - I think the whole process of differentiation is fascinating, all the more so because the article says that scientists do not yet understand what makes cell differentiation take place.

I think this is where we should focus our research efforts, understanding the signals that cause this process to happen. Imagine if we could understand cell death and differentiation to such an extent that we could completely reproduce what the cells are doing?

I envision a veritable found of youth being created, where cells can be regenerated throughout the human body, as a result of our discoveries.


@MrMoody - I think the idea of using embryonic stem cells is that you use the cells from fetuses that have already been aborted. Therefore I don’t subscribe to the slippery slope argument myself, nor do I share your fears.

If adult stem cells are faring better than embryonic stem cells and we can avoid the controversy, all the better. But if we get to the place where embryonic stem cells are the only source for the kinds of cells that could potentially cure certain ailments, then I don’t think that we should hinder progress.


In biology cell differentiation has become a very hot topic with the advent of stem cells. Although they are politically controversial, they don’t need to be.

The fact is that there is at present no real reason to harvest stem cells from human embryos in my opinion. All of the effective uses of stem cells to date have come from the use of adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cell research is theoretical at best and there is no reason for people to keep insisting that we have to use it. The sticking point is of course abortion.

Some people (myself included) fear that if embryonic stem cell research is given the full green light, human embryos will be conceived and then harvested simply for the purpose of stem cell research. It’s not a morally justifiable position in my opinion.

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    • A diagram of cell differentiation.
      By: Andrea Danti
      A diagram of cell differentiation.
    • Unlike other stem cells, adult stem cells can be limited to forming only certain categories of cells.
      By: spflaum
      Unlike other stem cells, adult stem cells can be limited to forming only certain categories of cells.