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What Is Cell Differentiation? - Process, Importance & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Cell Differentiation?
  • 1:25 Importance of Differentiation
  • 2:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this lesson, you will learn how your cells become specialized. This specialization of cells allows them to perform different functions and create different parts of your body.

Gene Expression Regulates Cell Differentiation

Everything in your body is made up of cells: your hair, fingernails, bones, muscles, organs and even blood. All of these cells contain the same genetic material, or DNA, and this genetic material is what makes you a unique individual - it's different from everyone else's DNA. So, how is it possible that your cells contain the same information, yet look and act so differently from each other?

Cell differentiation is how generic embryonic cells become specialized cells. This occurs through a process called gene expression. Gene expression is the specific combination of genes that are turned on or off (expressed or repressed), and this is what dictates how a cell functions. Gene expression occurs because of certain signals in your body, both inside and outside of your cells.

Cell differentiation occurs during multiple stages of development. During cell differentiation, the cell size and shape changes dramatically, as does its ability to respond to signaling molecules. Signaling molecules are molecules that bring messages to cells that help the cell know which activities and processes to perform.

Signaling molecules carry a message to a cell receptor, which interprets the message through a signal transduction pathway. This pathway translates the message into something that the cell can recognize and understand, and this is what tells a cell how to function.

Importance of Cell Differentiation

As your cells develop and differentiate, they become quite different in structure and function. Once this differentiation begins, a cell is bound to that fate and must continue down its path of differentiation. Each type of cell that develops creates tissue-specific proteins, which are only found in that cell type and are what give the cell its unique structure and function.

Cells need to have different structures because they have different functions. A sperm cell has a function that is very different from a skin cell or a liver cell. If a sperm cell were not shaped the way it is, it would have a very difficult time swimming to an egg to fertilize it.

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