In humans and other animals, eggs and sperm are unique cells that pass on genetic material to the next generation. They originate from a small group of cells called primordial germ cells that form early in life in the developing embryo. Several different signal molecules including ones known as BMP4, Wnt, and Nodal, instruct certain cells in the embryo to become primordial germ cells.
The process by which primordial germ cells are made in humans is very different to how primordial germ cells are made in mice and other so-called model animals that are commonly used in research. This has made it more challenging to uncover the details of the process in humans. Fortunately, new methods have recently been created that mimic aspects of how human embryos develop using human stem cells in a laboratory dish, providing an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how human germ cells form.
Jo et al. used a technique called micropatterning to control the shape and size of groups of human stem cells growing in a laboratory dish. Treating these cells with a signal known as BMP4 gave rise to cells that resembled primordial germ cells. The team then used this system as a model to study how primordial germ cells form in humans. The experiments found that reducing Wnt signals in stem cells stopped primordial germ cells from forming in response to BMP4, confirming that Wnt signals made by the cells in response to BMP4 are essential. However, this block was overcome by providing the stem cells with another signal called Nodal. This suggests that the role of Wnt signaling in primordial germ cell formation is in part indirect by switching on Nodal in stem cells.
Defects in eggs and sperm may lead to infertility, therefore, the findings of Jo et al. have the potential to help researchers develop new fertility treatments that use eggs or sperm grown in a laboratory from the patients’ own stem cells. Such research would benefit from first developing a better understanding of how to make primordial germ cells.