Perspectives

Silencing stemness in T cell differentiation

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Science  12 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6372, pp. 163-164
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar5541

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Summary

Functional diversity in multicellular organisms is achieved through the differentiation of stem cells. During this process, stem cells must retain both the capacity for self-renewal and the ability to differentiate into highly specialized cell types to produce a diverse array of tissues, each with distinct functions and organization. This plasticity is achieved through alterations to the epigenome, heritable and reversible modifications to DNA and histones that affect chromatin structure and gene transcription without altering the DNA sequence itself. Alterations to the epigenome enable cell type–specific transcriptional control that can change dynamically over the life of a cell. Such flexibility and responsiveness are instrumental in directing gene expression changes throughout cellular differentiation and lineage specification. The acquisition of more specialized functions during differentiation requires not only that the epigenome turn “on” genes involved in lineage commitment, it also necessitates that genes associated with stemness are simultaneously turned “off” (1). On page 177 of this issue, Pace et al. (2) demonstrate that this phenomenon exists in CD8+ T cells, in which epigenetic repression of stemness-associated genes by the histone methyltransferase SUV39H1 is required for T cell effector differentiation. Understanding these mechanisms addresses important questions in immunology and is applicable to cancer immunotherapy.