While it is widely accepted that embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have the ability to become any type of cell, the molecular causes for this characteristic are still under much investigation, although one suspected player is chromatin. Recently, more evidence has been reported to support the important role of chromatin structure in maintaining an undifferentiated state in ESCs; the specific protein involved is called Chd1 (Gaspar-Maia et al., 2009).
Chromatin structure plays an important role in regulating what genes are created, or expressed, in a given cell. In eukaryote organisms (almost all large organisms, such as animals, plants, and fungi, but not bacteria), DNA forms a complex with proteins that are called histones. This complex of DNA and histones is called chromatin (see figure). Histones act as spools for the DNA to be spun around, binding to DNA and packaging it into tightly coiled units (without histones, the long DNA strands would take up a very large amount of space). Whether the histones bind to the DNA or not can be regulated through chemical modification of the histones (they can be methylated or acetylated). When histones are bound to the DNA, the chromatin is in a condensed state (called heterochromatin) and the genes are not expressed because they cannot be accessed by the gene transcription machinery. However, when the histones are not bound to the DNA, the chromatin is extended (called euchromatin), and the DNA can be accessed and these genes can be expressed.
It was previously believed that embryonic stem cells had lots of open chromatin (euchromatin), but this was not a proven theory. A study on stem cells and gene expression (Efroni et al., 2008) reported that, globally but at low-levels, more genes in ESCs are actively turned into protein than are in differentiated cells. Additionally, proteins involved in changing chromatin structure and transcribing genes were expressed at relatively high levels in ESCs too. When the function of some proteins involved in chromatin-remodeling was changed, normal ESC proliferation and differentiation was also affected. Overall, Efroni et al. suggested that the differentiation of ESCs may correlate with a loss of active transcription of the cell genome.