Differentiation and subsequent specialization of every cell within an organism is an intricate interwoven process. A complex network of signalling pathways eventually leads to the specification of a multitude of different cell types able to function co-operatively. HS (heparan sulfate) is a highly sulfated linear polysaccharide that resides at the pericellular cell–matrix interface where it dictates the binding and activity of a large number of proteins, including growth factors and morphogens such as members of the FGF (fibroblast growth factor) and BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) families. Embryonic stem cells derived from mice with mutations in components of the HS biosynthetic pathway provide an opportunity to dissect the contribution of HS to signalling pathways critical for regulating stem cell maintenance and differentiation. In addition to improving our understanding of signalling mechanisms, this knowledge enables the selection of exogenous HS saccharides to improve the efficiency and selectivity of directed differentiation protocols, offering a cost-effective alternative to high concentrations of expensive growth factors to drive differentiation towards a particular therapeutically relevant cell type.

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