Science 360 - The Biotechnology Series

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Stem Cells Demystified | Biotech Careers

Key Vocabulary

Adult Stem Cell
An undifferentiated cell found in differentiated tissue that can: 1) renew itself, and 2) differentiate to become any cell type from the tissue where it was found.

Amino Acid
A group of 20 different kinds of small molecules that link together in long chains to form proteins. Often referred to as the "building blocks" of proteins.

Amniotic Fluid Stem Cell
A type of stem cell that is derived from the amniotic fluid or placenta before or just after childbirth. Amniotic fluid stem cells have some of the characteristics of both adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.

Bacillus thuringiensis
A naturally occurring bacterium with the ability to kill certain agricultural pests. Bacillus thuringiensis produces a protein (Bt toxin) that is toxic only to certain insect larvae that consume it.

A single-celled organism without a distinct nucleus. Bacteria are found throughout nature and can be beneficial or they may be infectious.

A collection of technologies that use living cells and/or biological molecules to solve problems and make useful products. Biotechnology makes use of processes ranging from fermentation to make beer, to genetic engineering and cloning.

An early embryo, about 5 to 6 days old, of about 150 cells that has not yet implanted into the mother’s uterus. Embryonic stem cells can be derived from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst.

Components in a cell that contain genetic information (DNA). Each chromosome contains numerous genes. Chromosomes occur in pairs: one obtained from the mother, the other from the father. Chromosomes of different pairs are often visibly different from each other (see also DNA).

A group of disorders that affect the body’s ability to produce or respond to insulin. Some diabetic patients need regular insulin supplements so that they can process glucose, the body’s fuel.

The process by which an unspecialized stem cell acquires the characteristics of a specialized cell type. For example, an unspecialized bone marrow stem cell may specialize to become a white blood cell.

The chemical molecule that is the basic genetic material found in all cells. DNA is inherited. Because DNA is a very long, thin molecule, it is packaged into units called chromosomes. DNA belongs to a class of biological molecules called nucleic acids.

DNA Ligase
An enzyme that rejoins cut pieces of DNA. In nature, DNA ligase functions to repair damaged DNA. It is also a valuable tool in genetic engineering.

E. coli
A bacterium commonly found in the intestinal tracts of most vertebrates. It is used extensively in recombinant DNA research, such as genetic engineering, because it has been genetically well studied.

In humans, the early stage of development before birth lasting until the eighth week after fertilization.

Embryonic Stem Cells
In humans, undifferentiated stem cells taken from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any of the more than 200 cell types found in the human body.

A protein that encourages a biochemical reaction, usually speeding it up. Organisms could not function without enzymes.

A unit of hereditary information. A gene is a section of a DNA molecule that specifies the production of a particular protein.

Gene Gun (Biolistic device)
A device that uses pressurized gas to “shoot” gold or tungsten particles coated with DNA into cells. This process is useful for genetic engineering because the target cells often take up the foreign DNA and incorporate it into their own chromosome(s).

Genetic Engineering
Altering the genetic material (DNA) of cells or organisms to enable them to make new substances or perform new functions.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
An organism in which the genetic material (DNA) has been modified by laboratory gene transfer methods. Genetically modified organisms may be produced by adding new genes, or by adding segments of DNA to turn an existing gene off.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
Adult cells which have been “reprogrammed” to behave, in many ways, like embryonic stem cells. In particular, induced pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any of the more than 200 cell types found in an adult human. Biologists discovered how to create induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007.

An enzyme produced by the pancreas that regulates the amount of sugar in the blood. Diabetic patients may not produce enough insulin, or their bodies may not respond to insulin.

A small circular piece of DNA found outside the chromosome in bacteria. Plasmids are the principal tools for genetic engineering.

A large complex molecule made up of one or more chains of amino acids. Proteins are important for many functions such as movement, metabolism, cell-to-cell communication, and acting as enzymes. The information for producing proteins is stored in DNA.

Restriction Enzyme
Enzymes that recognize a specific sequence of DNA and cut the DNA at that site. Restriction enzymes are often referred to as molecular scissors. In nature, restriction enzymes function to protect many bacteria from viruses. They are also important tools for genetic engineering.

Stem Cells
Cells with the ability to: 1) differentiate into specialized cell types, and 2) divide for indefinite periods of time to maintain their population. Scientists work primarily with embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. A third type of stem cells, amniotic fluid stem cells, combines some of the features of both of these stem cell types.


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