ESCs (embryonic stem cells), derived from the blastocyst stage embryo, are characterized by an indefinite ability for self-renewal as well as pluripotency, enabling them to differentiate into all cell types of the three germ layers. In the undifferentiated state, ESCs display a global promiscuous transcriptional programme which is restricted gradually upon differentiation. Supporting transcriptional promiscuity, chromatin in pluripotent cells is more ‘plastic’ or ‘open’, with decondensed heterochromatin architecture, enrichment of active histone modifications, and a hyperdynamic association of chromatin proteins with chromatin. During ESC differentiation, nuclear architecture and chromatin undergo substantial changes. Heterochromatin foci appear smaller, more numerous and more condensed in the differentiated state, the nuclear lamina becomes more defined and chromatin protein dynamics becomes restricted. In the present chapter we discuss chromatin plasticity and epigenetics and the mechanisms that regulate the various chromatin states, which are currently a central theme in the studies of stem cell maintenance and differentiation, and which will no doubt assist in delineating the secrets of pluripotency and self-renewal.

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