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The difference between totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent stem cells

There are many different types of cells that inhabit the body, each having its specific purpose and characteristics. Here is an overview of the similarities and differences between totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent cell types. They all hold characteristics typical to the stem cell, for instance the ability to self-renew and specialize into other cells. Their differences lie primarily in their potential and how many and what type of cells they can specialize into.

First off, totipotent stem cells are one of the most critical stem cell types because they have the ability and potential to develop into any cell within the human body. The totipotent stem cell is created from the fusion of a single egg cell and a single sperm cell, which form a zygote. Then, the zygote divides multiple times into cells that are capable of populating the human body in its entirety. These cells are totipotent, because, as the name implies, their potential is total.

Pluripotent stem cells, as well, have incredible potential. They can divide and create cells from all three primary body layers and can produce the cells that a body needs to repair themselves. They are also able to self-renew, as are all stem cells. There are many types of pluripotent cells, such as embryonic stem cells which develop in the embryo, as the name suggests. They then can specify into the three primary groups, either ectoderm–of the skin or nervous system–endoderm–of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts–or mesoderm–of the bone and cartilage, circulatory system.

Lastly, there are multipotent stem cells. Multipotent stem cells are cells that are unspecialized and can self-renew into specialized cells, as all stem cells can. What sets them apart is their ability to “give rise to other types of cells, but it is limited in its ability to differentiate. These other types of cells are also limited in numbers.” These cells are often found in the tissues of adult mammals and are called multipotent because they can only specialize in a limited number of cell lines, although they can create several types of cells. The exception to that is the mesenchymal stem cell, which can give rise to bone, muscle, cartilage, fat, and other tissues


Pluripotent Stem Cells 101