Why are stem cells called stem cells?
“Stem cell” is one of those terms we use all the time without thinking about it, but where did the name come from originally?
Why do we call these particular cells that meet given criteria, “stem cell”?
The name “stem” would appear to be a reflection of their potent nature as cells. Note that I’ve updated this post in 2020.
The term “stem” in this case refers to the stem of a plant meaning that stem cells have the potential to fork down different pathways and support growth. I’m sure “stem” is used in addition because of its alternate meaning of something from which other things originate. They can turn into other cells, like a stem on a plant branching out. See my stem cell symbol at right. You might also find this Nature Stem Cell Reports article on the naming question to be very interesting.
But why don’t we call “stem” cells something else?
Could there be a better name than “stem” cells?
Other languages have some important lessons here. It turns out that in many languages “stem cells” are called something different. To dig more into this we can turn to my stem cells not lost in translation project, SCOPE. There we have a white paper about stem cell properties and applications that I wrote available in 32 languages.
Interestingly, in both Portuguese and Chinese, “stem cell” is translated literally as “trunk cell”. This is kind of cool as it gives the same kind of meaning as “stem” cell in the plant/tree kind of sense, but I think “trunk cell” actually makes more sense than “stem cell” because from a trunk grows the entire rest of the tree including many branches, leaves, flowers, etc. In contrast, sometimes from a stem there is just a flower and a couple leaves.
In Spanish, “stem cell” is translated literally as “mother cell”. This makes good sense to me and again might be a better term than “stem cell”.
In Albanian, “stem cell” is literally translated as “flow cell”. This is very cool and suggests to me a flowing river that can go down different paths.
In both Turkish and Azerbaijani, “stem cell” is “root cell”. I think root might be a better term than stem.
In Vietnamese, “stem cell” is “original cell”.
In Croatian, “stem cell” is “home cell”.
In Welsh, “stem cell” is “basic cell”.
So the words used instead of stem include the following: trunk, mother, flow, root, original, home, and basic.
I like all of them and they all have interesting connotations.
I think “trunk cell” sounds the most interesting, but I imagine we won’t see a change in nomenclature any time soon. Besides some folks might get confused and think a trunk cell is from an elephant. I should note that many languages literally translate “stem cell” as just “stem cell” like it is in English.
What language do you think has the best “stem cell” name?