The Chemistry of Stem Cells


In modern medicine, stem cells are often seen as the frontrunner in the new wave of alternative treatment for many degrees of tissue and organ damage. Due to their properties of being “programmable,” stem cells are capable of replacing job-specific body cells that may have been damaged beyond repair. Stem cells are very structurally similar to the typical somatic cells that you would find in the human body. They differ because their DNA components are present, but inactive. Because of their never before seen functional flexibility, stem cells have become very prominent in mainstream media and are fascinated by many, including myself. I decided to research the chemistry of stem cells because I am interested in medicine and the many advancements in medical practice that have occurred over the last decade. With the practical application of stem cells on the rise, now is the time to become invested in what will become the future of medicine. In many ways, stem cells affect us in our everyday lives. From our development in the womb to a possible middle-age knee surgery, stem cells have distinct uses and functions in our body, and scientists are discovering more of them every day.

Composition of ...

    • Water- H2O
    • Nucleic Acids
      • Adenine-C5H5N5
      • Thymine-C5H6N2O2
      • Cytosine-C4H5N3O
      • Guanine-C5H5N5O
    • Proteins- H2NCHRCOOH
    • Lipids- Specifically Acetyl-CoA (C23H38N7O17P3S)
    • Carbohydrates- Specifically Glucose (C6H12O6) and Deoxyribose (C5H10O4)

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

    • Methyl groups and catalyst enzymes both make up a major epigenetic component of stem cells once they have begun the process of differentiation. Methyl groups (CH3) work in coordination with the enzyme DNA methyltransferase and its methyl donor, S-Adenosylmethionine, in order to tag the stem cell’s genes to adapt the cell in response to the organism’s environment.
  • DNA also plays a MAJOR role in the function of stem cells. Nucleic acids, (Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, and Cytosine) phosphate groups, and sugar (deoxyribose) all compose the segments of DNA called genes. These genes are what give the body its instructions to function. In stem cells, once specific genes have become tagged with a methyl group, they tell the cell to begin its physical change into whatever type of cell the genes were tagged for.

Chemistry's Role

Stem cells begin as any adult somatic cell would. During development in the womb, stem cells are synthesized and from then on divide until they either differentiate or die off. Differentiation is the process in which stem cells are given a specific function for which they must change their structure. The process of differentiation begins in the environment surrounding the organism in which the stem cells reside. When the body responds to specific changes in the environment, methyl groups are tagged onto specific genes inside the cell’s nucleus. The location and frequency of these methyl tags are what determines what the stem cell’s function will be. To place the methyl tags, the enzyme DNA methyltransferase along with its methyl donor, S-Adenosylmethionine, attach the methyl group to the DNA binding site. Once the tags are able to trigger a physical change in the genes, RNA is responsible for transferring the new genetic code that will prepare the cell for its new structure and function. Another form of epigenetic triggers for stem cells lies in the extracellular matrix. (ECM) This fluid houses the majority of tissue cells in the human body. The ECM is also very responsive to changes in the environment. As chemical imbalances occur, this lace of proteoglycans, heparan sulfate, keratan sulfate, hyaluronic acid, and proteins like collagen and elastin cause the cells within it to receive signals to apply methyl group tags. While some factors for chemical differentiation have not yet been researched in depth, it is apparent that the major influence on stem cell differentiation is the environment. The chemical processes the environment of a cell causes it to go through not only are vital for the healthy behavior and adaptation of cells, it is majorly responsible for deciding what, how, and where stem cells are prompted to change in our bodies.

Background Research

Stem cells are cells in the human body that are unspecialized in their duty. This means that they are able to be “programmed” to change their structure and function in order to revitalize other tissues and their organ systems. Stem cells are essentially the typical human somatic cell with the majority of its DNA components deactivated. The main components are the 4 major macromolecules: nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. In modern medicine, stem cells are being used to restructure tissue and organ systems that have experienced severe trauma. While stem cells are still not fully understood, they have had major impacts on how medical researching is being conducting and what we thought was possible in the realm of recovery.


General information on the composition of stem cells versus somatic cells.

Described the major functions of stem cells.

Explained the role of stem cells in the body and why they are important.

Elaborated on the extensive functions of stem cells and how they are “programmed”

Provided information on the composition and function of the ECM and how it affected the differentiation of stem cells.

Included information on how the process of differentiation occurs.

About the Author

Brandon Radonski is a Junior at Billings Senior High School. Although his favorites subjects to study are science and mathematics, he also enjoys playing the cello and getting on the tennis courts after the average school day. Brandon is also very interested in medicine and plans to study undergraduate pre-medicine immediately after high school.