The episode has also led Nature to rethink its review policy. The Editorial accompanying the retractions defends the journal, saying that “the editors and referees could not have detected the fatal faults in this work”. Still, it is putting “quality assurance and laboratory professionalism ever higher on our agendas, to ensure that the money entrusted by governments is not squandered, and that citizens’ trust in science is not betrayed”. The Editorial cites a planned increase in the number of articles to be scanned for manipulated images as one measure meant to detect misconduct.
The molecular events leading to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) differentiation are the subject of considerable scrutiny. Here, we characterize an in vitro model that permits analysis of the earliest steps in the transition of hESC colonies to squamous epithelium on basic fibroblast growth factor withdrawal. A set of markers (GSC, CK18, Gata4, Eomes, and Sox17) point to a mesendodermal nature of the epithelial cells with subsequent commitment to definitive endoderm (Sox17, Cdx2, nestin, and Islet1). We assayed alterations in the transcriptome in parallel with the distribution of immunohistochemical markers. Our results indicate that the alterations of tight junctions in pluripotent culture precede the beginning of differentiation. We defined this cell population as "specified," as it is committed toward differentiation. The transitional zone between "specified" pluripotent and differentiated cells displays significant up-regulation of keratin-18 (CK18) along with a decrease in the functional activity of gap junctions and the down-regulation of 2 gap junction proteins, connexin 43 (Cx43) and connexin 45 (Cx45), which is coincidental with substantial elevation of intracellular Ca2+ levels. These findings reveal a set of cellular changes that may represent the earliest markers of in vitro hESC transition to an epithelial phenotype, before the induction of gene expression networks that guide hESC differentiation. Moreover, we hypothesize that these events may be common during the primary steps of hESC commitment to functionally varied epithelial tissue derivatives of different embryological origins.