Ready, set, …

The discovery that muscle stem cells behave differently in the body than they do in lab dishes changes how researchers view stem cell function.

Stem cells waiting to jump into action

Muscle stem cells behave differently in the body than they do when they’re removed for study, a revelation that Stanford researchers say could change their view of adult stem cell function.  

Muscle stem cells are essential for healing. They exist mostly in a quiescent, or dormant, state in the body until a muscle injury requires them to jump into action. Until recently, scientists believed that very little of the everyday business of normal cells — producing RNA molecules and proteins — was going on in the dormant cells.

But research by Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and others has proven otherwise. While previous studies normally analyzed cells after they had been separated for hours from their native environment, Rando’s team used a new technology to take a snapshot of the cells’ activity while they were still in the body.

The researchers found that the cells are actually hotbeds of RNA production, but they also learned something new — that many of the RNA molecules are either degraded before they have a chance to make proteins or they are made into proteins that are then rapidly destroyed.

“It’s possible that this is one way the cells stay ready to undergo a rapid transformation, either by blocking degradation of RNA or proteins or by swiftly initiating translation of already existing RNA transcripts,” Rando says.

A study describing the research was published Nov. 14 in Cell Reports. Rando, the director of Stanford’s Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging, is the senior author.