The concept that stem cells are controlled by particular microenvironments known as 'niches' has been widely invoked. But niches have remained largely a theoretical construct because of the difficulty of identifying and manipulating individual stem cells and their surroundings. Technical advances now make it possible to characterize small zones that maintain and control stem cell activity in several organs, including gonads, skin and gut. These studies are beginning to unify our understanding of stem cell regulation at the cellular and molecular levels, and promise to advance efforts to use stem cells therapeutically.
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