A gene that codes for a telomere protein is the key to regulating stem cell pluripotency, new research shows.

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any type of specialised cell in the body. They hold huge potential for a range of regenerative medical treatments. Scientists have previously struggled to understand the genetic cues that initiate stem cell differentiation. However, a gene exclusively found on cell telomeres may provide the answer.

Telomeres are repeating sequences of DNA found at the end of chromosomes and prevent damage to the DNA when the cell divides. The DNA in telomeres codes for the production of long RNA molecules called TERRAs. Researchers found that TERRAs acted on genes essential for pluripotency, through the actions of polycomb proteins.

Polycomb proteins decide the fate of cells in early embryonic development, by placing epigenetic markers onto cells to signal what type of cell they will differentiate into. The gene TFR1 codes for the TFR1 Protein that is only found on telomeres. It was discovered that TFR1 protein acts as an on/off switch for the action of TERRAs. Therefore, the TFR1 gene indirectly controls the actions of polycomb proteins and is responsible for regulating pluripotency.

Further research is required to identify if TFR1 can be used to convert specialised cells back to pluripotent stem cells.