In the vertebrate embryo, the neural crest forms transiently in the dorsal neural primordium to yield migratory cells that will invade nearly all tissues and later, will differentiate into bones and cartilages, neurons and glia, endocrine cells, vascular smooth muscle cells and melanocytes. Due to the amazingly diversified array of cell types it produces, the neural crest is an attractive model system in the stem cell field. We present here in vivo and in vitro studies of single cell fate, which led to the discovery and the characterization of stem cells in the neural crest of avian and mammalian embryos. Some of the key issues in neural crest cell diversification are discussed, such as the time of segregation of mesenchymal vs. neural/melanocytic lineages, and the origin and close relationships between the glial and melanocytic lineages. An overview is also provided of the diverse types of neural crest-like stem cells and progenitors, recently identified in a growing number of adult tissues in animals and humans. Current and future work, in which in vivo lineage studies and the use of injury models will complement the in vitro culture analysis, should help in unraveling the properties and function of neural crest-derived progenitors in development and disease.
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