The potential of a cell to produce all types of differentiated cells in an organism is termed totipotency. Totipotency is an essential property of germ cells, which constitute the germline and pass on the parental genetic material to the progeny. The potential of germ cells to give rise to a whole organism has been the subject of intense research for decades and remains important in order to better understand the molecular mechanisms underlying totipotency. A better understanding of the principles of totipotency in germ cells could also help to generate this potential in somatic cell lineages. Strategies such as transcription factor-mediated reprogramming of differentiated cells to stem cell-like states could benefit from this knowledge. Ensuring pluripotency or even totipotency of reprogrammed stem cells are critical improvements for future regenerative medicine applications. The C. elegans
germline provides a unique possibility to study molecular mechanisms that maintain totipotency and the germ cell fate with its unique property of giving rise to meiotic cells Studies that focused on these aspects led to the identification of prominent chromatin-repressing factors such as the C. elegans
members of the Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2). In this review, we summarize different factors that were recently identified, which use molecular mechanisms such as control of protein translation or chromatin repression to ensure maintenance of totipotency and the germline fate. Additionally, we focus on recently identified factors involved in preventing transcription-factor-mediated conversion of germ cells to somatic lineages. These so-called reprogramming barriers have been shown in some instances to be conserved with regard to their function as a cell fate safeguarding factor in mammals. Overall, continued studies assessing the different aspects of molecular pathways involved in maintaining the germ cell fate in C. elegans
may provide more insight into cell fate safeguarding mechanisms also in other species.
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