Cinquin O. J. Pathol. 217, pp186-198 (2009)
Stem cells are expected to play a key role in the development and maintenance of organisms, and hold great therapeutical promises. However, a number of questions must be answered to achieve an understanding of stem cells and put them to use. Here I review some of these questions, and how they relate to the model system provided by the C. elegans germ line, which is exceptional by its thorough genetic characterization and experimental accessibility under in vivo conditions. A fundamental question is how to define a stem cell; different definitions can be adopted that capture different features of interest. In the C. elegans germ line, stem cells can be defined by cell lineage or by cell commitment (“commitment” must itself be carefully defined). These definitions are associated with two other important questions about stem cells: their functions (which must be addressed following a systems approach based on an evolutionary perspective) and their regulation. I review possible functions and their evolutionary groundings, including genome maintenance and powerful regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation, and possible regulatory mechanisms, including asymmetrical division and control of transit amplification by a developmental timer. I draw parallels between Drosophila and C. elegans germline stem cells; such parallels raise intriguing questions about Drosophila stem cells. I conclude by showing that the C. elegans germ line bears similarities with a number of other stem cell systems, which underscores its relevance to the understanding of stem cells.