Embryonic stem (ES) cells have been successfully used over the past decade to generate specific types of neuronal cells. In addition to its value for regenerative medicine, ES cell culture also provides versatile experimental systems for analyzing early neural development. These systems are complimentary to conventional animal models, particularly because they allow unique constructive (synthetic) approaches, for example, step-wise addition of components. Here we review the ability of ES cells to generate not only specific neuronal populations but also functional neural tissues by recapitulating microenvironments in early mammalian development. In particular, we focus on cerebellar neurogenesis from mouse ES cells, and explain the basic ideas for positional information and self-formation of polarized neuroepithelium. Basic research on developmental signals has fundamentally contributed to substantial progress in stem cell technology. We also discuss how in vitro model systems using ES cells can shed new light on the mechanistic understanding of organogenesis, taking an example of recent progress in self-organizing histogenesis.
© 2012 The Authors. Development, Growth & Differentiation © 2012 Japanese Society of Developmental Biologists.