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Process by which cellular differentiation occurs, during which a cell's phenotypic potential becomes increasingly narrowed while functionality becomes increasingly enhanced.
Cells in multicellular organisms transition over the course of organism development as well as tissue development, maintenance, and repair, from pluripotency to multipotency to oligopotency to unipotency and ultimately to a fully differentiated (terminal differentiation) and therefore fully functional cell. This process of narrowing of potential, in terms of states of differentiation, is referred to as cell fate determination.
Pluripotent cells are able to form into any cell type, multipotent cells into multiple but not all cell types, oligopotent cells into only a few cell types, and unipotent cells into only a single cell type. It is the interaction with other cells, including in particular in terms of cell-to-cell communication, that the changes in cell gene expression and therefore cellular differentiation occur. To a large extent these changes are irreversible, thus narrowing the fates of cells, in terms of their differentiation, as their development proceeds.
Note that, among animals, cell fate determination is much less pronounced in deuterostomes, which includes ourselves, than it is in protostomes, which include, for example, worms, mollusks, and insects. The cells of these latter organisms, during development, thus are much less free to vary than are the cells of deuterostomes. This is not to say that the cells of protostomes are unipotent right from the start of development, but instead that developmental pathways along with cell fate detrmination are much more constrained in these organisms in the course of nearly every cell division.
See, in particular, determinate cleavage versus indeterminate cleavage.
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