What Is the Difference Between Pluripotent, Multipotent, Totipotent Stem Cells and All the Rest?

Jul 17, 2016 | Disease Models

Not a week goes by that I don’t see an article in my newsfeed about some new possible treatment to cure something or other.

When you start looking into the “New Treatment Can Cure Most Forms of Cancer!” usually it’s some new therapeutic that has shown promise in cells or perhaps rats and you feel somewhat cheated!

One of the most well-known cure-alls has become a household topic of interest (and in some cases contention): stem cells. Stem cells for cancer. Stem cells for aging. Stem cells to regrow limbs. Stem cells for diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury.

The list of uses for stem cells goes on!

However, a lot of these stem cell therapies never pan out in humans. There are many reasons for this that we won’t go into here but the success stories are very exciting.

There are so many different types of stem cells being used in research. To better understand the research and stem cells in general, it’s important to understand what the difference between each type of stem cell is.

Here is a quick guide to the different types of stem cells you should know about.

To recap, the definition of a stem cell is a cell that can:

  1. Self-renew: the ability to create more copies of itself.
  2. Create other cell-types: divide to create cells that mature into cells with specific function in the body.

Stem Cell Type

What it Is in a Nutshell



The “I can be anything” cell. These can become any cell in the body and can divide an infinite number of times.

Zygotes (single sperm and egg cell that have combined) and their progeny for approx. the four days of after fertilization has occurred before a zygote becomes a blastocyst.


The “I can be almost anything” cell.

Either embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells fall into this category.

1. Embryonic

Almost here referring to becoming any cells except placenta or umbilical cord cells.

The inner mass of a blastocyst.

2. Induced

The “I couldn’t before and now I can become anything” cell. Cells from any tissue are genetically engineered to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Usually blood or skin tissue cells are used.

Adult aka Somatic aka Tissue-Specific

The “I shall follow in my tissue’s footsteps” cell. These are residents of the body’s organs and tissues and can replace the local cells as needed.

Found in most of the body’s tissues e.g. skin stem cells and perhaps stromal cells aka mesenchymal stem cells. Also hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow that create multipotent stem cells capable of making many blood and immune cells.


These are cancerous cells that behave like stem cells.

Still controversial but thought to be found within some tumors.

While many aspects of stem cells remain a mystery, one thing is for sure, this is a very exciting field that is sure to produce many more fascinating insights into how our bodies work and explore new possible treatments that only science fiction writers have come close to creating!

Article by Olwen Reina. Contact Olwen at olwen@tempobioscience.com.