Conceptual Challenges of the Systemic Approach in Understanding Cell Differentiation

Methods Mol Biol. 2018;1702:27-39. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-7456-6_3.


The cells of a multicellular organism are derived from a single zygote and genetically identical. Yet, they are phenotypically very different. This difference is the result of a process commonly called cell differentiation. How the phenotypic diversity emerges during ontogenesis or regeneration is a central and intensely studied but still unresolved issue in biology. Cell biology is facing conceptual challenges that are frequently confused with methodological difficulties. How to define a cell type? What stability or change means in the context of cell differentiation and how to deal with the ubiquitous molecular variations seen in the living cells? What are the driving forces of the change? We propose to reframe the problem of cell differentiation in a systemic way by incorporating different theoretical approaches. The new conceptual framework is able to capture the insights made at different levels of cellular organization and considered previously as contradictory. It also provides a formal strategy for further experimental studies.

Keywords: Cell differentiation; Chromatin; Conceptual framework; Epigenetic mechanisms; Metabolism; Stochastic fluctuations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biochemical Phenomena
  • Biological Ontologies*
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Cell Physiological Phenomena*
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • Regeneration*