Liquid crystals, the same phase-shifting materials used to display information on cell phones, monitors and other electronic equipment, can also be used to report in real time on the differentiation of embryonic stem cells. Differentiation is the process by which embryonic stem cells gradually turn into function-specific types of adult cells or so-called “cell lineages,” including skin, heart or brain cells. The main challenge facing stem cell research is that of guiding differentiation along these well-defined, controlled lineages. Stem cells grown in the laboratory tend to differentiate in an uncontrolled manner, resulting in a mixture of cells of little medical use.
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