Here we report about an interdisciplinary workshop focusing on the effects of the local growth-environment on the regulation of stem cell development. Under the title "Towards a quantitative understanding of stem cell/ niche interaction: Experiments, models, and technologies", 33 experts from eight countries discussed current knowledge, new experimental and theoretical results as well as innovative measurement technologies. Specifically, the workshop addressed the following questions: What defines a stem cell niche? What are functional/regulatory characteristics of stem cell- microenvironment interactions? What experimental systems and technologies for quantifying niche function are available? As a consensus result it was recorded that there is no unique niche architecture across tissues but that there are generic principles of niche organization guaranteeing a proper function of stem cells. This functional aspect, as the major defining criterion, leads to the conclusion that stem cells and their niches need to be considered as an inseparable pair with implications for their experimental assessment: To be able to study any of those two components, the other component has to be accounted for. In this context, a number of classical in vitro assays using co-cultures of stem and stroma cells, but also new, specifically bioengineered culture systems have been discussed with respect to their advantages and disadvantages. Finally, there was a general agreement that the comprehensive understanding of niche-mediated stem cell regulation will, due to the complexity of involved mechanisms, require an interdisciplinary, systems biological approach. In addition to cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics and bioengineering also bioinformatics and mathematical modeling will play a major role in the future of this field.
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