A novel research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that cell volume could influence the future role of stem cells, regardless of environment.

The research led by Assistant Professor Ming Guo and Professor David Weitz found that removal of water from stem cells condensed the cells, and influenced the stem cells to become stiff pre-bone cells, whereas addition of water caused swelling of the cells, and formed soft pre-fat cells.

Cell stiffness plays a major role in the development of stem cells development. The researchers hypothesized that cell volume could affect destination of stem cell. Therefore, the researchers placed stem cells at their normal volume in a hardened hydrogel substrate to simulate the bone cells’ rigidity. A large portion of the stem cells developed into pre-bone cells after seven days.

When a softened hydrogel substrate was used, the number of stem cells that became pre-bone cells considerably reduced. Although, being in the softer substrate, the number of stem cells that became pre-bone cells increased when their volume was decreased by 20%.

When researchers placed stem cells on the glass to simulate a stiffer environment, they found that few of the cells developed into pre-fat cells. The formation of fat cells increased when the stem cells’ volume was increased by 20%.

The team observed that the volume seemed to dictate the cell stiffness and the cell fate. Further research required to examine the impact of variations in volume, as well as if cell volume or external cues were the dominating factors in stem cells fate.

Stem cells help researchers and clinicians to repair or replace damaged tissue and organs. The cells can develop into any specialized cell and treat various diseases and conditions.  Stem cells might aid in drug development and the understanding of how cancer and congenital disabilities occur.

Understanding the reasons for the stem cell differentiation would benefit scientists to produce methods that influence their behavior and develop new therapies. Aside from physical clues (cell stiffness or volume), various biological factors, biophysical agents or pharmaceutical drugs, such as light, ultrasound and radio frequencies could influence differentiation among stem cells.